Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The End of an Era--The Knoedler Trial Marks the Passing of the Classic UES Gallery

Upper East Side galleries like the kind Knoedler was are a dying breed.  Gone are the days when American paintings commanded more attention than contemporary art, or when people could see a dozen solid shows walking down Madison Avenue from 79th Street to 70th Street.  Real estate prices, the internet, changing collector habits and so forth have all played a role in this process, as has the general tendency in New York City towards change.  New York changes completely every twenty years—the energy of each generation transforms our great city in such a way as to make it unrecognizable to the last.

Gone as well (I think) are the days when a collector will buy a secondary market Post War work of art for seven figures which has no documentation whatsoever, with only the assurance from a respected dealer that it is authentic.  While the above factors can also be blamed for this, the activities on the Upper East Side that have been discussed at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Manhattan this week are probably more of a factor. 

I was reminded of the fact that galleries used to be different by two witnesses who appeared in court this morning at the Knoedler trial.  The first was Jaime Andrade.  People like him were a fixture of uptown galleries back in the day.  It would be impossible to say exactly what they did, but they were usually the first person a visitor would see at the gallery…not sitting at the front desk, but perhaps opening the door, carrying something heavy…just somehow there whenever anyone dropped by.  Galleries then, as now, typically hired attractive young women to staff the front desk but these jobs have always been a stepping stone for ambitious recent college graduates who would not be accustom to the various passersby.  By contrast, men like Andrade had decades on the job and thus knew everybody who might enter the premises from the Rockefellers to the homeless.  They had been to client’s homes to install works, and to artist’s studios. They went to the post office to add funds to the franking machine, they hung the shows and they made it in through blizzards.   In short, they were the institutional memory of these galleries, an integral part of day-to-day operations who added character to the shop. 

Ann Freedman’s attorney, Luke Nikas, stated in his opening that Glafira Rosales had used Andrade as a conduit into the gallery, making it seem as if the shifty grifter had taken advantage of a low-level functionary at Knoedler to gain access to the people in control. I missed the beginning of Andrade’s testimony yesterday, but Nikas had an opportunity to question him today and did not, so I assume that Nikas didn’t have the guts to hear what Andrade had to say about this theory.  I can’t say with any certainty that Nikas is wrong, but it doesn’t sound right to me.  Anyone who wanted to get through the door at Knoedler would have had to get past this guy, and it wasn’t his job to find consignors for Freedman but rather to make sure that they felt comfortable whenever they visited. 

Andrade was dressed to the nines in court, with a wool three-piece suit and matching hat, and seemed to me proud of what he had accomplished in this career.  I am not sure what the reason was to drag him through all of this, excepting that he seems to have been one of the gallery employees that encountered Rosales regularly.  In his testimony, I think I heard him say that he had worked for Sidney Janis as well as for Richard Feigen.  English is not his first language and I may have been wrong.  But someone should interview this man for posterity, he probably knows more about art and the art business than most. 

Next up was Melissa De Medeiros, a long-time employee of Knoedler who worked there from 1984 – 2013.  That is just the way these places used to roll.  These days, if people stay at a company for more than 5 years it is remarkable.  At places like Knoedler, you’d still be a newbie.  De Medeiros was asked what her job was, which she had trouble answering.  She’d had no precise title for much of her time; she’d done a lot of things--been in the library, oversaw administration and, unfortunately for her, she was Freedman’s assistant for a couple of years right when the Rosales situation came to a boil.  Again, this was so typical of the way these galleries ran; one or two people would handle sales and everybody else did everything else.  Galleries, even big ones like Knoedler were not organized like corporations.  This is not to say they didn’t make money, but rather that the way in which collectors and galleries interacted was intentionally low-key and a little bit slow-paced.  Collecting in these places was supposed to be more of a hobby than anything else, so galleries tried not to behave like a grubby retail operation. 

De Medeiros came across as knowing her stuff.  The judge asked her early on who were some of the names on a list of artists and she told him clearly and succinctly, even dropping in the year of Milton Avery’s birth without consulting her notes.  In her testimony, she revealed that even in 2007, Ann Freedman was dictating emails to her, which she would send to clients on her boss’ behalf…talk about old school!  Even more old school, despite it being the 21st Century, she typed up a number of memos and letters which were entered into evidence and shown to the jury.  These all centered on Freedman’s interactions with Rosales. 

The plaintiff’s attorney, Gregory Clarick, walked her through the various written documents.  Watching legal dramas on TV is way better than sitting in court, which can actually be quite boring.  Every time a new scrap of paper came to the top of Clarick’s pile, he had to hand two copies up to the bench, one for the witness and the other for the judge, then the witness had to recognize it, whereupon Clarick requested it be admitted.  The two attorneys on the defense (one for Freedman and the other for the holding company that owned Knoedler and which actually has assets to pay the huge damages claimed by the plaintiffs) both state they have no objection, so the judge says the evidence is admitted, and then Clarick asks permission to show it to the jury on the screens in front of each of them, which is then granted.  Over and over and over. 

This was frustrating for an observer but the strategy became clear.  In looking at the various memos recording encounters between the two, Clarick was trying to show that Gonzales changed her story about how these fakes had been purchased and that she also changed the contents of the collection to match up with what Freedman asked about.  For example, initially, no Jackson Pollock works were mentioned, but when Freedman asked if there were any, some appeared.  His point seems to be that someone should have smelled a rat.

Clarick asked De Medeiros about all of the research that she did in trying to authenticate the various fakes or to verify other parts of Gonzales story.  He asked numerous times if there was any specific documents that she found at the Archives of American Art and elsewhere, to which De Medeiros replied that she found convincing evidence that the stories could be true but that she had not found any documents.  She had obviously worked her ass off trying to find something to support the authenticity of these works on behalf of her employer.

I had the distinct impression that De Medeiros was somewhat of a hostile witness.  A few times Clarick alluded to her previous testimony and implied that she was contradicting herself and in general she made his life a bit difficult, being prickly about wording and so forth.   But here was a woman who had spent almost 30 years working at a prominent gallery, for whom this collection of works, now known to be fakes, was likely a high note of her career.  Freedman undoubtedly made her aware of the importance of this work—at one point, De Medeiros even testified that Freedman referred to the consignor as the gallery “Secret Santa”.  Who could blame her if she wanted it to be clear that she had given it her best shot?

Art Historical research is always a bit hazy; the words ‘might have’ and ‘likely’ are often as best as one can get in these situations.  The art historian does not write legal documents…or invoices for that matter.  De Medeiros must have known that the stakes were high.  She obviously worked very hard to establish a link between what was being told to her by Freedman and Rosales and what was in the record and there was no upside for her to come back empty-handed.  Was she in on the racket?  Hard to imagine…nothing so far has been suggested along these lines.

Regardless of how this all ends, I am struck by the fact that an era in New York is over.  This is not a tragedy—things change.  And Knoedler might well have disappeared without Freedman’s help (one expert has determined that absent all these fakes, the operation was not a going concern).  These two employees with decades of service might not have jobs today even if Rosales had never walked in the door.  But both of them had to testify today and it certainly seemed as if both of their careers are over.

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