Scam Artists Go After New Prey: Real Artists


When the Art Institute of California in Napa announced a "national talent search" last fall, Taylor Spence of Laramie, Wyo., quickly sent in his $48 entry fee. "I fell for it, lock, stock, and barrel," Mr. Spence says.

What Spence fell for was a scam. There was no Art Institute of California and no talent search.

As it turns out, the California scam is not unusual. Bogus art institutes and museums have been set up by scam artists who prey on real artists. "It is a growing problem," says Drew Steis, publisher of Art Calendar magazine, a Westover, Md., business magazine for the visual arts. Mr. Steis says the magazine receives inquiries from artists every day about possible scams. Both the state of New York and authorities in California are conducting investigations into alleged scams, and Massachusetts recently obtained a judgment against one operator.The fake museums or institutes advertise in legitimate art publications for entrants to contests. The so-called contests are actually just ways for the perpetrators to collect "entry" fees or high shipping and insurance fees from the artists.

With 2 million artists in the United States, it is not unusual that the business has attracted some unsavory operators. "There is a new artist every day and they are not familiar with some of the old scams," Steis says. The scams continue because the perpetrators usually do not get jail sentences, but just agree to state injunctions not to engage in similar activity again within the state.

Although there are no firm figures on the amount of money sucked out of artists' pockets, Steis estimates it runs into the millions each year. In 1993, one art scam, the New England Fine Arts Institute, netted over $300,000 from 2,600 artists. That year, another operator took in $1.7 million after promising 3,000 artists that their work would be promoted in an art book. "The book would have been 6,000 pages if it had been printed," Steis says.

Artists desire visibility

Last year, the so-called Museum of Modern Art of Miami advertised for contestants for an art competition. Initially it only mentioned a $25 to $35 handling fee. However, once an artist responded, future correspondence indicated there would be a $250 handling fee. The museum, which was part of a so-called International Museum of Art, no longer has a working phone number. "There is no bona fide Museum of Modern Art in Miami," says Diane Camber, executive director of the Bass Museum in Miami.

Artists admit they are often suckers because they are desperate to have someone notice their material. Disreputable people "know the average artist is so eager to have their work out there in other states and possibly in an international exhibition, it makes people act before they think," says Sharon Broms, an artist in Portland, Ore.

Wyoming artist Spence says it's difficult for most artists to manage their business affairs while trying to paint. "We are asked to be completely emotional when we work and then turn around and be as hard as Ivana Trump when we negotiate," he says.

Art Calendar says it receives numerous letters of complaint from artists who say they have been victimized. Sometimes the complaints are more about questionable business practices than actual scams.

For example, a lot of artists have written to the magazine about a French woman, Jane Chambeaux, who claims to run a museum called Musee d'Art Moderne d'Unet near Bordeaux, France. Ms. Chambeaux charges the artists $295 for one painting in one "show." In addition, she has charged artists $400 to ship a painting from Miami, where she maintains a residence.

Three years ago, Spence, who lived in France for several years, decided to visit Chambeaux's museum after his artwork was quickly accepted for one of her "biennials." He recalls, "It was a home in the style of the Bordeaux area with a wrought iron gate in a suburban setting. As soon as I saw it, that was the end of my interest."

Middletown, N.J., artist ArLyne Mehler-Saunders did enter several paintings in Chambeaux's contests. The artist had to pay customs duties when the works were returned despite the fact she had paid Chambeaux for all fees and tariffs.

"I was furious, but I could do nothing about it if I wanted to get the work back," recalls Ms. Mehler-Saunders.

Ambiguous claims

The French Consulate in New York has an extensive file on Chambeaux. However, Jacques Soulillou, director of visual arts for the consulate, says he does not believe Chambeaux is dishonest. But, he adds, "I told her to be careful with the name Museum of Modern Art."

In January of 1993, the consulate said Chambaux was not a "conservateur" as she claimed, nor did she have a proper museum. The exhibits are held in her "dining room," according to the consulate.

On April 10, 1995, in an open letter to anyone inquiring, Mr. Soulillou disavowed this earlier letter, because anyone in France can call themselves a curator and the term museum is not copyrighted. He points out that Chambeaux runs a private and commercial activity. However, he admits many of her claims are "ambiguous."

Gallery space in bank

For example, in her latest notice of her contests, Chambeaux claims to have the "patronage" of the Mayor of Paris.

Soulillou says, "One should not be so impressed by a patronage. It is mainly a letter. It does not prove anything." And, Chambeaux tells artists about an annual exhibit, called South Miami Grand Prix, held at the "famous" Wirtz Gallery in Miami.

"I've never heard of it," says Brian Dursum, director of the Lowe Museum, which is part of the University of Miami.

This "famous" art gallery is actually part of a public space owned by the First National Bank of South Miami. The bank allows artists to mount exhibitions there without charge.

The Wirtz's director, Sherry Avery, says she has received anonymous letters of complaint about Chambeaux, but none of the artists who have exhibited at the gallery have complained. "We've had nothing negative," she reports. The artists could not be reached independently to confirm this.

Chambeaux did not return phone calls to her residence in Miami.

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