everyone is given a gift.” That’s Gospel. Different
people have different gifts.
is a television series starring Poppy Montgomery as a homicide
detective who remembers everything she has ever seen. In real life,
actress Marilu Henner is one of the rare possessors of this ability.
The phenomenon is so rare that “60 Minutes” could
identify only a handful of people who possess this unforgetting gift.
have written previously about my friend Nat Leeb (1910-1994), artist,
collector, and connoisseur. He possessed a variant of that gift.
Seemingly, he could remember every painting he had ever seen, live or
ability led to one of our more notable — or notorious —
adventures, which took several years to play out.
freely shared this gift. On one of our four trips visiting museums
around the country we stopped in Raleigh to see the North Carolina
Museum of Art. A spectacular new museum was nearly finished, and its
architect took us through it room by room. The museum’s art was
still in the old museum, and the director and assistants gave us a
Nat commented on several displayed pictures — some were more
important than their attributions — the museum staff was so
impressed that they took us into the vaults to see many of the
pictures that were not on display. A secretary made copious notes of
everything he said. When a painting perplexed him he said he would
research it back in Paris so he could better answer their questions.
weeks ago I wrote about him in the context of the dealer who had sold
fake paintings to Texas millionaire Algur Meadows. The Examining
Magistrate (Juge d’Instruction) who examined me was so
impressed by the previous testimony Nat provided that he asked for
Nat’s advice on some art he owned. The Magistrate was another
of many who sought the same counsel.
met Nat through my good friend tapestry artist Mathieu Matégot.
They lived on the same cul de sac in Paris. At the time I had begun
organizing small commercial art galleries in many American cities and
was looking for artists that I could show in collections that would
circulate from city to city. Leeb (pronounced Leb) became one of my
of art came from France, and from a headquarters in New Jersey we —
Art Circuit Services — organized, framed, packed, and shipped
was living in Bethesda, Maryland, and needed to drive thousands of
miles around the country to launch my enterprise. I did not know Leeb
very well, but I told him that if he and his wife, Paule, wanted to
accompany me they were welcome as long as they paid for their own
meals and motel rooms.
met them on the New York docks. They brought with them their
two-year-old daughter and a refugee Jewish governess whose father had
once been financial advisor to deposed King Farouk of Egypt. The
child and governess were taken to Bethesda to spend nearly two months
with my wife and young children while the Leebs and I traveled.
was a little nervous when I met the family in New York. I had offered
to take them with me, but I didn’t really know if they had the
means to pay for their meals and accommodations. To allay my unvoiced
fears, the first thing Nat did while still on the dock was to
reassure me of his wealth by showing photos of two magnificent Degas
race track pastels he had just acquired.
Nat left for home two months later he wandered through French and
Company in New York, bought a misattributed painting, and sold it,
properly identified, in Paris for more than enough profit to pay all
the expenses of the trip.)
of our stops was in Minneapolis, where I had arranged for Nat to have
his first American showing.
through our circuit, Nat, Paule, and I stopped in the Santa Barbara
Museum of Art, where there was an exhibition of American Trompe
l’Oeil art featuring William Harnett, John Frederick Peto,
and other like artists of the 19th Century. These
forgotten artists had been rediscovered by Alfred Frankenstein, the
art and music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Frankenstein’s recent book After the Hunt found and
identified these artists whose still-life paintings are so realistic
and deceiving that you want to pick up the objects depicted.
ahead two years. The Leebs and I are making another museum
pilgrimage, this time meeting with many museum directors. On that
first trip we saw no Harnetts or Petos, except for that Santa Barbara
museum. This time we found these artists well represented on museum
walls, a direct result of Frankenstein’s book.
set off Nat’s total art recall.
Nat was living in Germany, well prior to World War II, he had painted
some pictures to hang on the walls of a hunting lodge. Nat remembered
a couple of paintings already at the lodge that were appropriate to
the setting. One showed a pair of pheasants, one male, the other
female, hanging on a weathered wood wall. The other painting depicted
a rabbit hanging on a wood door that is even more weathered than the
first picture. The game, wood, and hinges looked very real.
were no identifying signatures. They are fabulous paintings, but who
had painted them?
returned to Europe and set off to find his former German patron.
Despite the intervening years and the conflict that destroyed so
much, Nat found him. The man was old and about to sell his hunting
lodge. Nat bought the paintings.
took them to conservators at the Doerner Institute, Munich, whose
task is to provide scientific preservation of the Bavarian State
Painting Collections. Technicians discovered that the paintings had
been relined. That is, a second canvas had been glued to the back of
the aging original for strength. Removing this relining revealed the
paintings’ authorship. Both were boldly signed and dated on the
back by Harnett!
can be forged. The paintings would have to be authenticated by the
one expert in the world who could not be challenged: Alfred
came to Paris to see the paintings at the precise time I was there
with my daughter Caroline. We met him when he carefully inspected
Nat’s paintings. He was not ready to give Nat his opinion.
played the clarinet in the Chicago Symphony before moving to
California, where he became the art and music critic for the San
Francisco Chronicle. Each Sunday edition of the paper included a
tabloid section summarizing the national, state, and local news of
the week and carrying the stage, music, art, and movie reviews. In
Carson City, Nevada, this Sunday edition became a part of our family
reading, and growing up I read Frankenstein’s reviews every
was thrilled to meet him. I was even more thrilled when he said that
he used my book The Fabulous Frauds as source for some of his
that day Frankenstein called me at my hotel. He wanted to know how
long I had known Nat, and he wanted me to tell him the story of how
Nat had obtained the paintings.
the end of our conversation — before we all went out together
for dinner — he said to me, “These are the most important
Harnett paintings to be found in years.”
Trompe l-oeil painting by William Harnett, subject of this column
declaration does not end the saga of these paintings.
had studied art in Germany, and Nat sent the paintings to the
Cincinnati Art Museum to be part of a show of 19th Century
American painters who had done the same. Frances and I drove to Ohio
for the opening of the exhibition.
then either consigned or sold the paintings to Steven Straw’s
gallery in Newburyport, MA. (Nat and I had some previous experience
with Straw, but that’s a different story.)
was a crook.
other frauds, he would sell half interest in a painting (which he
might not even own) to more than two different people. He was found
out, charged, thrown into involuntary bankruptcy and sent to prison.
The gallery’s inventory, including the two Harnetts, was put up
Second William Harnett painting cited in column
at least two different sources I was informed that there was a
conspiracy among a number of dealers to discredit the paintings, to
allege they were fakes, and to poison their auction appearance so
they could be purchased for almost nothing. After which they would
suddenly be declared genuine.
received a call from the Maine Antiques Digest, an important
trade publication, to which I gave a detailed recital of the history
of the paintings, which it published.
next call was from Alfred Frankenstein in San Francisco. The
allegations had come back to him, and he was irate, to put it mildly
— that his authority should be challenged! He reaffirmed his
auctioneers could see what was happening. They heard what I heard.
They withdrew the paintings.
they negotiated their private sale — as genuine Harnetts.
houses do not identify purchasers. I have no idea where these two
beautiful paintings went, but some institution, investor, or
collector possesses two of the best fool-the-eye paintings Harnett
Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor
and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on
modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat
Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.
He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary
Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to
1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and
Arelis in America.
Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of
Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to
or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan.
He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.
He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine
Arts Legacy Foundation
Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.