Sunday, October 2, 2011Theresa Franks: One Woman's Quest to Control the Art World
by Michael Wilson
You're an artist and you want your portfolio neatly cataloged. What do you do? You call Theresa Franks, that's what you do. You're an art collector and you need to protect your valuables from fraud, and establish their provenance and authenticity? No problem. Just call Theresa Franks.
Franks is the founder and CEO of Phoenix based, fineartregistry.com, or “FAR”, an on-line art gallery that offers a patented tagging system which helps artists and collectors organize their inventory and, according to Franks, ensure its authenticity. The site’s trademarked moniker: "Helping Bring Order to the World of Art".
The website, which operates under Franks’ umbrella company, Global Fine Art Registry, LLC, is a vast maze of articles, forums and virtual art galleries which take you deep into the art world, or at least the art world according to Franks.
A large portion of the site is dedicated to its gallery, where sellers and buyers peruse through an assortment of artworks listed for sale. While the site offers mostly contemporary and decorative arts by relatively unknown artists, there’s also works for sale by famous artists such as Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, according to the website, complete with Franks’ patented registry tags and, in some cases, a downloadable certificate of authenticity. Sellers and buyers must first register with FAR in order to correspond with each other. FAR accepts no commission from the sales.
The tagging system has piqued the interest the world over. “We’re an international database,” says Franks. “We just made a deal with the Russians. They didn’t have the technology, so we represent them here.”
One major collector I spoke with said he finds the tagging system very interesting. "I would consider using it," he said. But he cautioned, "only if the company's integrity is intact."
FAR names several partners including Artletics, a vintage sports artwork dealer; Masterpiece, a company that offers handmade canvases pre-equipped with FAR’s identification tags; Neglia Services, a jewelry replacement and evaluation service; and CLE 123, Inc., a legal education service company that offers on-line courses in Advocacy, Ethics, and Conflict-of-Interest studies.
CEO Teresa Franks
FAR’s articles range in topic from auction results to tips and strategies for collectors. Several content-generated articles are listed from other websites such as artprice.com, a members-only database of auction results. All make for a dizzying display to whatever suits your artistic fancy. “You can kind of get lost in all the articles,” laughs Franks, who pens most of them herself. In fact, when I called to interview her, she was “madly working” on yet another one.
Aside from being the site’s web administrator, Franks devotes much of her time investigating “art crime” cases, which are featured on her long list of advocacy and investigative-related articles on the FAR site. “We work closely with federal law enforcement,” says Franks. “We work to deter fraud.”
One case she’s helping the FBI investigate, says Franks, is that of famed cruise ship auction outfit, Park West Galleries, Inc., based in Michigan. Franks was referring to several class-action lawsuits against the gallery stemming from allegations the company sold fake prints by artist Salvador Dali.
The FAR website has become a cornucopia of information for the Park West case, where numerous articles appear, penned by Franks, as well as a litany of homemade amateur YouTube videos featuring Franks ranting about the company’s alleged misgivings.
The rants have been the subject of ire for Park West, who launched four defamation lawsuits against her; each for $46-Million. They were all dismissed. And despite ongoing litigation with Park West in U.S. District Court in Michigan, she speaks freely, without worry of consequence. “Park West is currently being investigated,” says Franks. But she admitted, “no indictments yet.”
In one video, dated, August 14, 2010, Franks even takes a shot at U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff, for vacating a jury’s verdict that awarded her $500,000 for various copyright infringement counterclaims against Park West. Zatkoff ordered a new trial scheduled for November, 2011. In the video, Franks lambasts Judge Zatkoff for being “biased from the beginning”. She boldly vows to investigate him, suggesting a "special relationship" exists between Judge Zatkoff and Park West Gallery's lawyer, Rodger Young.
Her sharp tongue has garnered Franks some unwanted attention. During the trial, Franks and her attorneys were admonished for misconduct, and Judge Zatkoff threatened a directed verdict.
Franks also took creative pot shots at the trial, making abstract ink drawings and giving them titles such as “Strangled Justice”, “Jury Deliberation”, and “Wretched”. They are offered for sale on the FAR site, complete with her trademarked tags.
Another target of Franks has been art restorer and forensic expert Peter Paul Biro of Montreal, Canada. Biro discovered fingerprints on a purported Jackson Pollock painting, found at a thrift shop by retired trucker, Ms. Teri Horton. One of the fingerprints matched that of one found on a blue paint can in the Pollock studio in East Hampton, New York. The discovery was chronicled in a 2006 film documentary, “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?”
Then, in a July 12, 2010 article in the New Yorker, reporter David Grann painted Biro as a forger and a criminal. For that, Franks credits herself. “We worked together for about a year on that story,” she said. "I supplied him with a good number of documents. So, he took that and ran with it.” She continues, “It was our (Fine Art Registry's) investigation that really was the catalyst for that article."
Grann’s article set off a bit of a media feeding frenzy, and it wasn’t long before other articles appeared, stating Biro was “a forger” and his family had done “jail time”. Biro launched a defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York against Grann, his employer Conde Nast, and Dan Rattiner. He sought $2-Million from each defendant.
Shortly after the suit was filed, many articles which portrayed Biro badly were retracted. Dan’s Papers published a public apology. Business Insider and the Daily Beast issued corrections. According to U.S. federal court records, Biro and defendant Rattiner have reached a settlement arrangement, the details and amount of which are undisclosed. The New Yorker trial is still pending.
But the target of choice for Franks has been cruise line art auctions, particularly in the Park West case, where the debate isn’t as much about whether the company sold fake Dali prints, but whether the experts used to authenticate or negate the pieces are themselves valid.
In the U.S., no set of regulations exist for the art market. Experts are determined more by consensus than credentials. An individual may have an enormous knowledge base of a particular artist, both historically and mechanically, down to the brush strokes. But, in a buyer-beware environment, unless an expert can garner enough respect and confidence from the art world, he will become useless when it comes to authenticating a work of art, even if he is the only one in the world that can tell the difference between the real thing and a master forgery. This holds especially true for works by Dali, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol, artists for which there exists no authentication boards in the United States.
As for Park West, they utilized the professional services of an accredited art appraiser and Dali expert, Bernard Ewell, of Sante Fe, New Mexico. For years, he examined works which were later sold by Park West during their cruise line auctions. However, a pre-existing power-struggle between Ewell and French Dali expert Robert Descharnes was exploited by Franks, and brought into her “ring of fire” on the FAR website. Franks, for some reason or another, has joined ranks with Descharnes, and appears in videos with him and his son Nicolas Descharnes, referring to the two as “world renowned Dali experts.” Franks says she has spent about $2-Million on litigation costs against Park West.
“It’s the old wild west,” says Franks. “That is why we’re here; to bring order.”
Franks is a human sieve: offering information, speculation and ponderings with the nonchalance of a gossiper, yet the tenacity of a litigator. “There's a whole sociological element to art crime and art fraud, in why criminals do what they do,” said Franks.
As she spoke, I was drawn into the tangle of her words, and it dawned on me that there's a place where Franks thrives; a grey area in the art world where, in all its chaos and disorder, there exists a platform to gain a position of power and control, to authenticate strange truths and fashion them into less strange lies, to bolster a false sense of confidence in those that serve you, and destroy those that oppose, and capitalize on it all in a very creative, venomous way.
In all the seemingly wanton, obsessive ranting, – Franks spoke for several minutes at a time between questions – I still found it difficult to put down the phone. But I had to; there were other calls to make. And as a registered member of fineartregistry.com, who had spent months perusing the site and corresponding with other members, I knew something wasn’t quite right. But to an extent I had never imagined.
I put a call to Bernard Ewell, the Dali expert for Park West and asked him why Franks was after him. “I live in rattlesnake country and I know better than to stir up a viper,” said Ewell. But I pressed him for a motive, pointing out that Franks spent an enormous amount of money on the trials in Michigan. He said he was being attacked by Franks to discredit him as an expert witness in the federal case with Park West. “During the Park West trial, the favored theory was that she is being funded by Robert Descharnes, because he was trying to destroy Park West Gallery, so that his son Nicolas can basically corner and control the whole Dali market,” said Ewell.
As a result of Franks’s accusations and “Google-Bomb” campaign, Ewell says he’s lost up to 70% of his business. “People do a Google search of my name and I never hear from them again,” said Ewell. He described Franks as “an anarchistic bomb thrower; she really doesn’t care what innocent lives are ruined and what indiscriminate damage she causes. She's like a grizzly bear: you just don’t know what she's going to do. Like a Japanese zero out of a cloud, she was suddenly there.”
What troubles Ewell most, it seems, is that none of the investigators followed Franks’ money trail to find out where her funding is coming from. “Everyone just sort of shrugged and said, ‘so what can you say, the woman is crazy’. There's no logic to this. She’s got some things going in her head that she's convinced herself is true.” Ewell, in his despair and frustration still sports an air of toughness, and also a quick-witted, whimsical sense of humor. “She reminds me of the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland who said, ‘Sometimes before breakfast I can believe in as many as thirteen impossible things.’”
I asked if he had one question for Franks, what it would be. After a long pause, he said, “Has she benefited enough from all the damage she's done? Because the damage has been massive.”
On whether Franks committed libel: “Yes, absolutely,” said Ewell. “Complete lies.”
As for Teri Horton, the owner of the purported Pollock painting that Biro found a fingerprint on, she was very reluctant to speak with me at first, fearing I was a “Theresa Franks shill”. After two requests, she agreed to speak briefly about Franks. She referred to Franks as an “opportunist”, capitalizing on high profile cases such as her painting.
Perhaps a most stunning revelation: Horton disclosed publicly for the first time that it was actually Franks who first contacted Horton several years ago when news broke of the new-found painting. “She wanted to have me put the Pollock painting on her website," said Horton, “because she and her company, Fine Art Registry, were so well known she could assure me of a sale with top dollar."
But, Horton, street-smart and deep into her 70’s, wouldn't take the bait. She said it was with “gut instinct” that she immediately did not trust Franks. "I refused," said Horton. "Then she went on her rampage and lied." She described Franks as a "diabolical sociopath" who has caused problems for her entire family. “If I had the money, I would sue her for property disparagement. She's a crazy, evil woman," said Horton.
And back to those blue-chip works being offered for sale on Franks’ website: Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele. I wrote an email to a seller, “David Cameron”, who lists numerous works as being “by Jackson Pollock”. Cameron said the works come from a “huge collection”, and are owned by a small group of investors, and that Franks had come to view the paintings prior to listing them for sale on the web.
I contacted the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and told them works were being offered on the FAR website. Alarmed, they referred me to the foundation's attorney, Ronald D. Spencer. I asked what he thought of the paintings. I could hear him gasp from the other end of the phone as he opened up the email which contained the links to the FAR site. He paused momentarily, then said: "If you were to gather all the Pollock experts in the world, they would all give you the same answer. And it would be an equivocal answer.”
I did in fact contact an expert on Pollock, who wished to remain anonymous. He stated, "It is my opinion that these works are not by the hand of Pollock. They are amateur fakes. Most disturbing is the reference to Clement Greenberg, Peggy Guggenheim and Larry Rivers in the seller's description. Furthermore, it shall be considered that the entity offering these works, Fine Art Registry, is indeed trafficking in forgeries."
A seller, “JBPALANK”, (Jason B. Palank), who appears on the FAR site as well as its offshoot, registermyantiques.com, claims on his profile that he is a “Consultant & Modern Impressionist Specialist” for Christie’s Auction House - New York. Among the works offered for sale by Palank: a painting "by Paul Klee", and an original pen and ink drawing "by Pablo Picasso", for $50,000, which he says includes an appraisal by someone "highly recommended" by Christie’s. However, when I called Christie's, a representative in the modern impressionist department said there's no consultant or specialist named Jason B. Palank. I pressed her to search the company’s database. “Nothing,” she said.
An e-mail to Palank went unanswered. However, a cursory search shows a history of arrests for prescription fraud, DWI, and possession of a controlled substance. He was most recently arrested on August 1, 2010.
Another member, “Breaux05”, was offering an Egon Schiele watercolor. When I contacted the seller, he responded by stating it was not for sale, but would be inclined to sell it if the price was right. We exchanged about five emails. By the third email, I asked if Franks had seen the piece or offered an opinion. He responded by stating Teri Franks is “not an art expert or authenticator!” The seller also copied the email to firstname.lastname@example.org, the same email address for Teri Franks.
I wrote back saying that I was curious as to her opinion because she’s listed as a “Fine Art Expert” and therefore should be garnered to an opinion, and perhaps responsible for the authenticity of the piece being sold on her website. The seller quickly responded by referring me to his lawyer. The site listing Franks as an art expert is cruise ship watchdog group, cruisebruise.com.
Naturally, I had questions. Why would the seller say Franks is not an expert, and at the same time, copy her on the email? Is it possible that the seller is actually Theresa Franks, and copying herself by accident? That would be too strange, I thought, and would require someone of a duplicitous nature. And although I never did hear back from the seller, I tried yet one more.
I inquired with the seller, “Artsy”, who lists dozens of works for sale on the FAR site. I received a response from someone who signed off as "Lynn", and with the email URL suffix as skipperwbreeders.com, a website devoted to horse trading.
A closer look into skipperwbreeders.com revealed non-other than Franks as the site’s administrator. A chill ran up my spine. "Lynn", and "Artsy", as it turned out, are the same individual. All this time, I had been unwittingly communicating with Franks: an "advocate" for transparency, clouded by aliases, in a maze carved by her own hands from the desk of a computer. At that very moment I knew I was dealing with a complex, obsessive and deeply troubled person.
I looked back at the Paul Klee painting offered by Palank, and noticed something familiar about its design. It bore striking resemblances to those ink drawings made by Franks, and their distinct titles: “Forged”, “Criminal Mind”, and “Madness”.
In a field of loops and swirls, I considered something more sinister behind the veil of Theresa Franks, and I remembered her own words about “why criminals do what they do.” I made one more call to Bernard Ewell and asked him again why Theresa Franks does what she does.
He said, “I don’t know enough about psychological disorders.”
Biro himself would not allow re-authentication of his own expert work.
This statement is not true by a blogger
It was me who would not allow peer review to examine Biro's work. I would allow anyone who was a potential buyer, bring in their own scientific expert & check the evidence to their satisfaction. The reason I would not allow others....such as Frank's Fine art registry....it was none of their damn business.
Journalist are like catfish....bottom feeders
I don't recall who on this blog asked if Grann had a reason for his despicable article on Paul Biro. You bet he does. I spoke with Grann this past fall, right after the Da Vinci authentication was made public.At that time I think Grann intended to write a positive article.Grann told me it would be a short while before he would do the article, he had other commitments.Sometime in June Grann contacted me with the ploy to confirm the previous info I had given him. He kept bringing up an issue I found rather odd..."in an arrangement I have with Biro, how much will he be paid in the event my Pollock ever sells? I told Grann, Paul & I have no arrangement that I will pay him any $$$$. I had told Biro's wife Joanne I would take her to Rodeo Drive for a shopping spree & perhaps I may give Paul a small gift. A couple weeks before Grann's article was published, another journalist called me via Grann's instructions to verify my previous info. He also asked me a couple times....how much will Paul be paid....I gave him the same answer.I now know why the insistent question.
The reason behind Grann's article:
Everyone is aware of the lawsuit attorney Richard Altham has filed, a complaint for the plaintiff, his client Jeanne Marchig former owner of the now established Da Vinci....
Paul Biro is listed in the complaint [in part]
"according to a Montreal-based forensic art expert named Peter Paul Biro"
Cause of Action..."Misattribution"... damages...$150 million. Someone on this blog mentiond Grann tied at the hip with Christie's....The New Yorker likewise. Grann took it upon himself or was instructed to...."destroy Paul Biro's good standing and reputation to prevent him being a reputable witness, for the plaintiff. Christe's expert looked at the picture for approx. 15 minutes as all self appointed art experts use this mode of authentication. They wait for some mystical feeling to come over them,in my case..."It doesn't sing like a Pollock,it doesn't have heart like a Pollock,it has no feeling like a Pollock" This would be Christie's expert's mode in his decision of yes or no.
Grann, going back 30 years in Biro's past of trivial mistakes [ each one of us have a past we would prefer stay past]was not enough to destroy Biro's reputable status.
SOOoooo, Grann brings in Thresea Franks CEO Fine Art Registry for more ammunition to discredit Biro, right up Frank's dark sinister alley.Grann utilizes the gobbly goop
Frank's has paid her henchmen to produce to discredit Biro's reputation, my Pollock work, and myself....for no other reason than her evil and malicious personality.
Grann's desperation to prevent Biro from testifying for the plaintiff is based on the following:
Federal Evidence Code â€“ Rule 702 amended 12/1/2000 ARTICLE VII. OPINIONS AND EXPERT TESTIMONY Testimony by Experts. If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case. Abstract: Dramatic changes in rules governing admissibility of expert testimony impact all areas of law. Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence impose a requirement that judges admit expert testimony ONLY if it is based on a scientifically sound foundation.
So much for art experts and their visual ˜feelings' of authentication. Exactly how Christies expert made their decision, which is useless in court.
This is the reason for Grann's attempt to get Biro disqualified as a witness for the plaintiff.
I thank each one who has the common sense to see through Grann's purpose of the article.