Chapter OneTHE SIXTH PART
Fetterman and I soon embarked on what turned out to be our final art-buying trip together, a frenzied journey that took us from Sacramento to Las Vegas and back in three and a half days. By the time we took this last trip, we had gotten it down to a science.
Fetterman paid an early-morning visit to the Sacramento International Airport to rent a minivan. He made sure the rental contract included unlimited mileage, a provision we intended to exploit without shame. To maximize cargo space, we usually removed the backseat of the van; this created enough room to store more than a hundred paintings, if they were stacked carefully. This time the backseat was connected to the van with a bicycle lock and could not be removed, which infuriated Fetterman.
"Relax," I told him, and folded the seat forward. We still had plenty of room. I shoved about twenty flattened boxes in the back to use as buffers between delicate paintings.
As usual, each of us left for the trip with a folded stack of hundred-dollar bills. I brought two thousand dollars. For on-the-road research, we brought a copy of Davenport's, Hughes's Artists in California, and two signature guides. Anything more only got in the way.
I was the navigator. Before the trip I spent hours poring through Internet Yellow Pages to find each antique and thrift store in our path. I used mapping software to plot a route through all the stores in each town and kept everything organized in a binder.
Fetterman appreciated this efficiency, because he was obsessed with making good time. His jerky, kinetic gestures became more pronounced on these trips and his gait quickened to an awkward race-walking pace. After buying paintings at a store, he would tuck them under his arms and fly out the door so quickly a bystander might have thought he had stolen them. If we entered a large antique shop together, he would go in one direction and I would head in the other, so we could search the place as quickly as possible. If we found two adjacent shops, he popped into one while I checked the other.
Within a few hours of our departure, my optimistic mood was turning sour. Fetterman usually felt the need to take charge when we were on the road, and this morning he went so far as to question my ability to shop for art. "You didn't find anything?" he said with slack-jawed incredulity when I left a store I had searched by myself without buying anything.
"There's nothing in there," I said.
He rushed into the store to make sure. He came out empty-handed too, but I knew if he had found something he'd have badgered me about it for the next hundred miles. Fetterman's impatience demanded we eat only at restaurants with drive-through lanes. If he found something on sale, such as a burger for ninety-nine cents, he would buy several and save them for later, so we wouldn't have to stop again for a while.
More disturbing than his impatience was his inane chatter. His three favorite topics while on the road were eBay, the time we'd spent in the army, and large-breasted women. His sense of humor was always juvenile, and sometimes it bordered on slapstick. One gag he enjoyed was pointing his finger at my chest, as if indicating a stain on my shirt, then smacking my chin with the back of his hand when I looked down. He would giggle wildly if I ever fell for that one. Another of his favorite tricks was burping into his hand and quickly holding it up in front of my nose, expecting me to tell him the contents of his last meal. "Knock it off!" I would say, clenching my teeth as I shoved his burp-filled hand out of my face.
But here's the thing: I put up with it. No one was forcing me to be in the car with him. I didn't have to endure his childish jokes and condescending insults. I did it for one simple reason: the money I was making on eBay. I tolerated him with embarrassing passivity. There seemed to be no end to what I would endure, and do, in order to keep art and money passing through my hands.
One thing Fetterman and I did agree on was our obsession with eBay, and one of the most unpleasant things about being on the road was being separated from our favorite website. Public Internet access was not easy to find in early 2000, especially in rural areas. We might stop at a library or a Kinko's, but it was easier to call a friend or relative. "Hi, Mom? Could you check my auctions again?" I loathed making these annoying requests, and felt like a drug addict who was continually asking to borrow money from relatives to support his habit.
We made it all the way down the Central Valley in the early morning hours and visited shops in the desert cities of Lancaster and Palmdale before lunch. Just after noon, we stopped at a place called The Orbit, a grimy antique store in Pearblossom, an unfortunate cluster of buildings nestled along a barren stretch of two-lane Highway 138, outside of Palmdale. The shop was a vast depository of grotesque furniture, carpet remnants, obsolete home electronics, coffee mugs with clever sayings, and tangles of forgotten and mostly undesirable objects. A narrow path snaked through this collection of rubble. While perusing this mess I noticed a large orange and green abstract painting perched crookedly atop a stack of milk jugs behind a bicycle frame. It reminded me of something, but I wasn't sure what. I climbed over a Naugahyde sofa and a stack of board games to get to it. The canvas was covered in a viscous layer of grime that spread to my hands and shirt. The price? Eight dollars, after some haggling with the elderly proprietor. We left Pearblossom and headed up Interstate 15 toward Nevada, stopping in Victorville and Barstow and several other small towns before night fell.
On the final stretch of highway before we reached Nevada, as the sun dipped below the horizon and left behind the brilliant, sad colors unique to the desert, Fetterman leaned out the window and snapped photos with his new digital camera. Before long the sky was black. About fifty miles from Las Vegas, in the middle of an uninhabited desert, traffic on the interstate slowed to a surreal standstill. For nearly thirty minutes we sat trapped on an unlit four-lane highway along with hundreds of other people, forming a chain of cars that stretched as far as the eye could see. Then traffic started creeping again, just as inexplicably as it had stopped, and we were soon cruising at freeway speed. There was no accident being cleared, no roadwork. Just a traffic jam in the desert. Obstacles sometimes appear where they're least expected.
As we pulled into Vegas, Fetterman spoke for the first time in nearly an hour.
"You still seeing that same chick?"
"Katherine? No, I broke up with her last week." I ended things because I had been unable to resolve my ambivalence about our relationship, the way I admired Katherine's strength of character even as I was bothered by her domesticity and all the "settling down" it carried with it. Settling down meant accepting myself for who I was, a frightening endeavor I wasn't ready to undertake despite the things I loved about Katherine. But I wasn't going to explain all of this to Fetterman. This wasn't the sort of thing we talked about.
"Too bad. She was hot, man. Maybe we can pick up some women tonight in Vegas. I hear this place is crawling with them."
In Las Vegas, Fetterman and I stayed at the Venetian, a thirty-six-story casino hotel that tried, without success, to look like the city of Venice. The next morning we set out to look for art. Most people come to Vegas hoping to win money in the casinos, but Fetterman and I found our jackpot at the city's antique stores. The place was a trove of reasonably priced art that was ideal for resale on eBay.
The abundance of art in Las Vegas was a surprise. For one thing, Vegas has relatively few antique stores for a city of its size. This is understandable, as the city had been nothing more than a fork in the road until 1941, when the first big casino was built. Anything antique in Las Vegas was brought in from somewhere else. Secondly, Las Vegas has never had a thriving local arts scene. Instead of galleries displaying quality original work by local artists, Las Vegas has high-priced art shops in the casinos that sell gaudy reproductions of famous paintings. Finally, to the extent that there is money among the local residents, it's new money, more likely to be spent on flashy cars and stucco mansions than tasteful art collections. Vegas just isn't the type of city where I expected to find much art. It was Fetterman's idea to go there.
But I was wrong. The antique stores in Vegas were packed with good paintings. We unearthed handsome nineteenth-century landscapes and fascinating abstract paintings from the 1950s. We came across decent paintings in all styles from all over the United States, Europe, and Latin America. We found something to buy in nearly every shop we visited, and in a single day we purchased sixty pieces.
Why so much good art? I could only guess. For one thing, Las Vegas is not just a place to gamble, it is a retirement town. The weather is warm and dry and the real estate's cheap, so it attracts people from around the country to many new developments targeted at retirees. When people retire they get rid of things, including furniture and art.
Las Vegas is also a frontier town where people come from other places to seek fortunes or make new starts. Not all of them make it. Some go bankrupt, some start drinking again, some grow weary of the heat, and some reconcile with spouses left behind. For whatever reason, a lot of people leave Las Vegas not long after moving there. There's a lot of coming and going, and where there is coming and going, things fall through the cracks. People have to sell stuff quickly. Some forget to pay the rent on storage units. Good paintings trickle into the local market. One of the more memorable finds of that day was a beautiful landscape by the Florida artist Harold Newton, whose work was becoming very popular in, but rarely found outside of, his native state.
The seeming abundance of art may also have been due to the fact that we might have been the first eBay sellers to raid the place. We were able to pick through a huge assortment of paintings that had been sitting around for a while.
There were many thrilling discoveries during the day, but my mood was always undermined by nagging reminders of the trickery that was part of what we did. I had been working with Fetterman long enough to know that he was not just looking for good paintings to resell at a profit; he was looking for art that would fool people. I was sure he scanned each painting we bought to see if he might be able to alter it in some way.
Sadly, my mind was now working like his. I no longer relied on him to hatch every crafty scheme. I had yet to actually commit an act of forgery (although I'd entertained the idea more than once), but I had gotten very good at deception. "This is a tricky one," I said to him when we found a seascape painting that looked old and valuable, but was actually new and very cheap. I knew if I photographed it selectively and failed to mention its age, someone on eBay might mistake it for the antique it was not, and pay too much for it.
"You know what to do with that one," Fetterman replied, chuckling.
We spent a second night in Las Vegas and got up early the next morning to visit a couple of stores before we left. Fetterman was fidgeting, eager to hit the road. He had our day planned and didn't want to miss any shopping opportunities. But I needed my coffee, and on the way out of the Venetian I insisted that we stop at a Starbucks for a double espresso.
This break in the action launched Fetterman into a tirade. "Jesus!" he spat. "You're killing me! What's more important to you!? Your coffee or making money? We need to hit the road!"
I glared at him, didn't say a word, and calmly opened the door and stepped out of the van. As I waited for my coffee, I looked out the window and saw him shaking his red face with exasperation. He couldn't wait two minutes for me to get a coffee. I hated him. I hated his impatience and his deceit and his condescension. I hated how I saw more of him in myself every day.
Fetterman cooled off later in the morning, after we stumbled across another twenty good paintings. As we prepared to head back to Sacramento, he handed me the keys. "You drive," he said. "I've been driving the whole way."
We made our way back along a different route, up Highway 99, stopping at more shops along the way, and arrived in Sacramento late the next evening, the van packed with 122 paintings. Some of them were superb, many were good, and some were admittedly poor choices. In the rush to acquire as much as we could as quickly as possible, we had picked up a few pieces along the way that we regretted purchasing. Fetterman and I were splitting the profits of these paintings, so it didn't really matter who sold what, but neither of us wanted to get stuck with the dogs.
To decide who got to sell which paintings, we conducted a draft. We removed all the paintings from the van, stacked them against the side of my apartment building, and then took turns, choosing the best ones first, like schoolkids on a playground picking the best athletes for their teams. About midway through the draft I grabbed the orange and green abstract painting I'd excavated from the junky shop in Pearblossom.
"I like this one," I said.
Fetterman sneered. "You can have it."
Not all the paintings were up for grabs in the draft. Fetterman reserved a couple of them for himself. "These need to be cleaned," he said. I knew what he meant; this was his code. He had identified the paintings as ones he might be able to alter, perhaps add signatures to, and was ensuring that they ended up in his pile.
We spent five thousand dollars on the Las Vegas trip. Three weeks later we'd sold half of the paintings and had already taken in about fourteen thousand dollars.
I was, by this point, quite sure that Fetterman was adding signatures to paintings. At the most basic level, all this requires is an unsigned painting, the name of an artist, and something to write with. Combining these elements to create a convincing forgery, however, is difficult. But I'd been watching carefully, and I was learning what it took.
First, the painting has to be in the right style. This was Fetterman's true gift. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of art that helped him to pair paintings with artists. He could look at almost any antique painting and name three or four listed artists whose work it resembled.
Style alone is not enough. The age, size, and medium of an artwork also come into play. Knowledgeable buyers research these things carefully. The signature of an artist who painted in the 1920s cannot not be added to a painting from the 1970s. If an artist always created large oil paintings on canvas, buyers will be skeptical about a small watercolor bearing his signature. Each of the suspicious paintings I got from Fetterman was from the general era of the artist with whom it was associated, and generally fit in with that artist's other works.
Finding an unsigned, properly sized and aged painting that resembles a particular artist's style is only the first step. The artist's name, of course, must be added. Signature guides, used by art experts to authenticate paintings, are just as useful to forgers. A skilled forger pays attention to an artist's signing habits. Some artists always sign the same way, and others sign different works in different ways. Some sign differently at various stages of their careers. Some always sign with the date, some never do, and others do occasionally. The location of a signature is also important. Some artists always sign in the same place on a painting, such as in the lower left corner. Some sign the backs of their paintings.
A forger adding a signature also has to worry about it being detected. Signatures forged in oil paint are easy to spot with a black light. Some forgers believe signatures painted in red do not "float" as much as those painted in other colors, but in my opinion, a signature added in red can be spotted by someone with a trained eye. More important, because red signatures are a forger's hallmark, savvy art buyers shun them.
I learned, over time, that the best way for a forger to avoid detection is to avoid using oil or acrylic paint altogether. Signatures added to drawings in pencil, ink, chalk, or pastel cannot not be detected. The same is true for signatures added in watercolor or gouache, or signatures added in ink to the backs of paintings.