A Seattle artist and the auction frenzy that sparked an FBI tip

A Seattle artist and the auction frenzy that sparked an FBI tip
A Seattle artist and the auction frenzy that sparked an FBI tip

red flags

Back at the castle, Kucera scrutinized the painting, peering back at him from the laptop screen in his dark bedroom. ABC Gallery was trying to pass off this painting as a real Burpee, he reckoned. They’d even given it a plausible name, he thought: ‘Soft Cradle’, written in all caps on the back of the canvas along with Mason’s ‘signature’ in naive italics and the words ‘mix oil’. (“Soft Cradle” is the name of a subdued Burpee painting Mason made in 1974.)

For Kucera, there were too many red flags. The size wasn’t right: Mason wouldn’t have used half-inch-sized canvases. The painting looked unprimed, but Mason prepared his canvases heavily with layers of white gesso (a chalky paint) so that his paint mixture would not soak in, but rather float on the surface. And Mason would never have stretched a canvas like this, with stretcher bars and staples instead of staples—Kucera would know: He had worked as Mason’s studio assistant for four years before becoming his gallerist.

But there were more intangible clues as well. “The painting areas just have no spontaneity to them,” Kucera wrote in an email. “There is no music in the event; no jazz to the elements. It’s a studied painting by someone trying to recreate what Mason did just by looking at digital images.”

Fellow Alden connoisseurs Huang, Braseth and Cascadia Art Museum curator and Pacific Northwest art historian David F. Martin agree. “It’s a terrible painting,” Martin wrote in an email, “no way Alden painted that mess.”

Kucera thought so too. So he emailed ABC Gallery. Where did they get this painting? “Origin: From a prominent corporate collection, Washington,” someone named “Julissa” wrote back to Kucera in early December. “Hope you will buy this painting. Please let us know, Julissa added. Kucera followed up. Which company? “Diane Gilson Gallery in Seattle,” Julissa replied a few hours later.

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Strange. It was the name of a gallery that closed in 1983, not one of the many companies that had actually bought Mason’s work during his lifetime. Kucera pressed again – and again history changed. Now it was the staff who had given Julissa the wrong information. The next day she emailed again: The painting was actually painted in the style of the artist.

“Definitely, this painting was not acquired in the gallery that was indicated, but rest assured that an artist with delicacy and good taste captured this painting in the best way and similarly, an artist who has the necessary knowledge to be able to convey what the original artist wanted to do,” wrote Julissa.

Kucera doesn’t know exactly when the description of “Soft Cradle” changed online, but at some point “in the style of”‘ appeared at the end of the listing, he says. “Which means that we do not know for sure the origin of the painting, since we do not have certifications of these works of art in my country,” the accompanying text reads. But the “Alden Mason” signature was still on the back of the painting.

Meanwhile, Huang, from her gallery in Seattle, had notified the FBI’s Art Crime Unit. “Wondering if this is of interest, a fake Alden Mason painting listed for auction,” she wrote. “His older paintings, Burpee Garden Series works, have fetched fantastic prices at auction recently.”

Asked if the FBI’s Art Crime Unit had opened an investigation, an FBI spokesperson said: “In keeping with standard DOJ practice, we neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.” Spanish police did not respond to questions about the existence of an investigation.

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