Schadenfreude On Trial: Two Fascinating Art Scandals

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. “They are different from you and me.” Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the upper echelons of the art world, where people like hedge fund managers and commodities tycoons need to decorate the walls of their ersatz chateaux, in order to paper over their humble origins. Two current scandals involving very rich art collectors may have escaped your notice, but each is absolutely fascinating.

Currently underway in New York is a major art fraud trial involving Knoedler and Co., which for almost 150 years was one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world. Knoedler allegedly sold a fake painting by the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko to collectors Domenico and Eleanore De Sole. Among many other things, Mr. De Sole is the current chairman of Sotheby’s auction house, and is the former CEO of Gucci.

One cannot help but chuckle at some of the testimony elicited thus far from the experts involved in this particular case. A scholar considered to be a major expert in the work of Mark Rothko admitted that not only could he not tell two paintings by Rothko apart, but he could not even say which way up they were supposed to be hung on the wall. Another expert testified that he believed a painting that was presented as being the work of Robert Motherwell was genuine, not because of the quality of the art itself, but because Knoedler was displaying it.

However the De Soles and the other buyers involved in the Knoedler scandal are small fry compared to the whopping big fish known as Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian oligarch who was allegedly bilked out of over one billion – with a “b” – dollars in the art market. While it is a very long piece, I urge you to read this fascinating article by Sam Knight about this case in the most recent edition of The New Yorker. The twists and turns, the business deals and unusual characters, which populate this story make it not only incredibly interesting, but deeply engaging reading, even if you know little or nothing about art. 

Over the course of a decade, Rybolovlev made a point of purchasing serious works of art, with serious prices to match. He bought the rarest of rarities, a rediscovered painting of Christ by Leonardo da Vinci, known as the “Salvator Mundi”, which had been painted for King Francois I of France in the early 16th century and which had long been thought lost. He bought paintings by Gustav Klimt, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, and others. He even bought a Mark Rothko – a real one, considered (by those who like that sort of thing) to be one of his best works.

The difference between the Knoedler case and this one is that Rybolovlev did not buy fakes. He bought genuine works, but did not know that their prices had been – allegedly – heavily marked up by the man whom he was employing as his personal art dealer. What is even more surprising is that the man in question was not actually an art dealer, but rather the owner of a massive storage and transshipment facility in Switzerland. These multi-million dollar art transactions were arranged by someone who had never worked at an auction house or art gallery in his life, and yet who managed to craft more successful high-end art deals in the course of a single decade, than many professional art dealers achieve in a lifetime at their trade.

Fakes and frauds, price-fixing and mark-ups, have been part of the art trade since the first Athenian bought a fake Zeuxis at the Agora. However these are not, much as we might have a sense of schadenfreude about them, victimless crimes. If you have both the money and the bad taste to buy a Mark Rothko, real or fake, that is your own affair, of course. Yet at the end of the day, if someone sold you a fake iPhone, or fake designer bag, which you paid full price for, would you not have the right to be upset?

Moreover, without a reputable, transparent, and honest art market, not only do private collectors suffer personal financial losses, but so do the public institutions which depend on both the market and private collectors to provide for us, the public, with works of art to admire, to educate, and to edify.       


"Salvator Mundi" by Leonardo Da Vinci






Fold Up Her Tent: DC’s Most Famous Homeless Woman Goes Home

There are many homeless people who have become known, as a result of their particular idiosyncrasies, to Washingtonians and visitors to the capital over the years. For example, there is “the whale guy”, a heavyset man who is usually seated around the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown, wearing a foam hat in the form of a giant whale. Or there is the super-jacked, somewhat aggressive “workout guy”, who is usually shirtless and sporting a big pair of headphones that are not plugged in to any listening device. And then there was “the tent lady”, whose passing you may have missed during the massive blizzard that hit the city last weekend.

Concepción “Conchita” Picciotto died on January 25th at the estimated age of 80. She was a fixture of Lafayette Square, the park located just across the street from the White House, for more than thirty years. I first met her when I was in Washington for the March for Life, some decades ago, and she spoke to me and some other teens whom I was with about how killing people with nuclear weapons and killing people through abortion were all of a piece.

Hard as it may be to believe in a post-9/11 world, at one time she was not the only protestor living in a tent in the President’s Park, but by the end of her life, she was the only one allowed to remain there. After a recent accident she moved into a residence for homeless women, but still came out to her peace post in the park on a daily basis.

María de la Inmaculada Concepción Martín, to use her maiden name, was an immigrant to this country from Spain. By the time I became aware of her, she was already so well-known back in her native country that my relatives called her “la gallega loca”, the crazy Galician lady, as she hailed from the city of Vigo. She claimed to have been orphaned during the Civil War, and that tragedy plus her subsequently turbulent personal life most likely contributed to her later mental imbalance. For Conchita was undeniably mentally ill: if you spoke with her for any length of time, that fact was readily apparent.

Like all Iberians worthy of the name, Conchita was as stubborn as a bull. Whether or not you agreed with her views on nuclear disarmament, Israel, the military-industrial complex, or any number of conspiracy theories which she latched onto and proclaimed to anyone who would listen, her beliefs were most sincerely held. Once a Spaniard becomes convinced of the veracity of their position, he would die or lose all he has rather than concede it.

I recall that when I was a college student, and found myself wandering my way through the park on a quiet weekday morning when there were virtually no tourists about, I sat down with Conchita and had a long conversation about Spain. We exchanged some very old jokes about Franco, but we also shared what we loved about Spain, a country that had passed into Conchita’s distant and dented memory. All Spaniards when they meet, particularly when not in Spain, must sit down and almost immediately begin to talk about food, but one also must inevitably come to have an argument of some sort about Catholicism. Even though Conchita had long ago given up on organized religion, there were still popular stories and devotions which, when recalled to her, held a faint, but rose-colored glow of her long-gone Catholic childhood.

We parted on good terms, even though she could not agree with me on the Church, and even though I was not particularly interested in her tinfoil hat theories. Though I never had a long talk with her again, whenever I found myself in the area I would drop by to say hello, or I would exchange passing greetings with her in Spanish – “God bless you, auntie!” I would say, on my way to somewhere else. “And you too, handsome!” she would inevitably call back. In a sort of way, Conchita became part of my routine, whenever I found myself around the White House.

It would be easy to dismiss the life of Conchita Picciotto as little more than that of just another mentally unbalanced homeless person, howling into the wind against all reason – as if “just another” was enough of a justification for ignoring her, or indeed anyone else in similar circumstances. She was not, at least not intentionally, a fool for God, in the way that St. Francis of Assisi or St. Benedict Joseph Labre were, raising eyebrows with their bizarre views and behavior put to His service. Her yearning for peace was at best parallel to the peace which Christ wants all of us to pursue, and no doubt God has been able to work through that in some of the lives whom she touched. However I do think that hers is an example of how to draw people’s attention to something in which one passionately believes, through little more than perseverance and determination.

That Conchita later came to be profiled in newspapers and magazines, lauded by leftist filmmakers and political activists, was not something she set out to achieve, like an internet celebrity seeking clicks and followers. Rather, she set about doing her work, and kept at it, night and day, rain or shine, heat or chill, demonstrating a resolve which I daresay is rarely met among those of us who play it safe in life. She was no Mother Teresa, but we can still learn from her example. And I shall miss our greetings which, I suspect for both of us, were like a little reminder of a well-loved, but faraway place.


This Weekend: Music And Liturgy After Vatican II

For those of you in the DC area interested in beautiful music, and particularly in the idea of having beautiful music as part of the liturgy – which, since the 1960’s, has been something of a foreign concept – I invite you to join us at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom this weekend and next, for a two-part lecture on how the post-Conciliar Church should and could be using music in worship. The lectures will be given by our Music Director at St. Stephen’s, Neil Weston, and will be held at about 12:15 pm in the Parish Hall. Perhaps you will also consider joining us for the 11:00 am Mass upstairs beforehand, to hear Neil and our Parish Choir in action, since Catholic or not, you are very welcome.

Neil studied at Oxford, the University of London, and the Royal College of Music, and as a conductor and soloist has performed in many venues in Europe and America, including here at the National Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine, and the Kennedy Center. Among other awards to date, he won the American Guild of Organists’ National Competition in Organ Improvisation, and has played on numerous solo and ensemble recordings. Every week at the 11am Sunday Mass, he and our choir help make the liturgy a truly beautiful, uplifting experience, enhancing rather than distracting from the worship of God by the use of their musical gifts.

At the risk of embarassing an Englishman, since they are not an effusive sort of people, I will say that every week I stay behind after the Recessional Hymn at Mass to hear what Neil is going to play, as people shuffle their way out. As you can hear in this example of his solo performance, recorded at St. Stephen’s and showing both Neil and the church, there is a joyful dexterity in his style and wonderful acoustics in the building itself. Neil plays and conducts an enormous variety of music, from the familiar to the unknown, the classical to the contempoary, but always with exceptional good taste and a sense of decorum as to what is suitable for the liturgy.

You can also hear a sample of Neil and our choir at St. Stephen’s performing together in this video, recorded during the Offertory at the 11:00 am Mass on January 10th of this year. I apologize for the quality of the recording which, since it was made on my phone, is not studio-grade. However more to the point of this post, as well as to the lectures which Neil will be giving, this was not music for a major feast day, like Christmas or Easter, but just a normal Sunday Mass. This of course begs the question, if as a rather small parish of only about 500 permanent members St. Stephen’s can make the effort to have a beautiful liturgy like this, every week, why cannot other, larger and welathier parishes do the same?

Hope to see you there this weekend and next, and if you spot me, please drop by and say hello!