"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
January 28, 2016
Heroes and Scoundrels
by Lawrence Jeppson

As I rush towards my 90th birthday (June 5), I reflect on more than 70 years of active interest in art. As I wrote in an early column, this began when I started buying illustrated books by Heritage Press. I was 17.

My first encounters with real art came before then, at the San Francisco World's Fair when I was 13.

In seven decades I have encountered a galaxy of interesting people, some good, some scoundrels. Some simply curious or even strange. Some were very famous, for a variety of reasons.

As long-time Moments in Art followers know, in 1958 I began representing all the great French artists who were creating modern, hand-woven Aubusson tapestries. I provided two collections of tapestries which were circulated to museums by the Traveling Exhibition Service of the Smithsonian Institution. That's when I published my award-winning book Murals of Wool.

Tapestries were expensive to produce, and when the French market for them burgeoned, the artists and weavers could no longer send me consigned inventory for show and sell. By then I was committing myself to a career of promoting the visual arts. So I embarked on an ambitious project to persuade leading department stores in all the major cities to install serious art galleries. I would organize art collections and circuit them from city to city. This was long before Vincent Price started doing the same thing through Sears.

Because of my many French connections, I went to Paris to find my art and artists. My good friend tapestry artist Mathieu Mategot introduced me to his neighbor, Nat Leeb, whom I took on as one of more than 100 artists I would work with over the years.

Art from France and England poured in to our framing and staging area in Rutherford, NJ, where I worked with my friend Gris Holman, who provided the facilities without charge in his family's moving and storage business.

While this was happening, in a 16 month period I was gone for 14 months with the only car in the family, meeting with department store executives from East Coast to West Coast and many cities in between.

When I set up a one-man show for Leeb in Minneapolis, I invited him and his wife Paule to join me. I planned to continue from Minneapolis to another of my trips to visit places where I was trying to establish galleries. I told the Leebs I would provide transportation, but they'd have to pay for their own food and lodging.

The only flaw in this plan: the Leebs had a two-year-old daughter, Dominique.

With my wife's approval, I said leave the toddler with Frances. We had six small children of our own.

To help Fran, the Leebs brought a governess, Vicky. She was an Egyptian Jew. Her father had been the financial advisor to King Farouk. After revolutionaries ousted Farouk, Vicky's family was in dire straights. Everything they owned was confiscated. The parents could not leave Egypt, but eventually Vicky was put on an airplane, with some gold sewn into her dress, and sent off to Paris, a city she did not know and where she had few ties.

Vicky came with some strange ideas about America, and for two months she and Frances had many enlightening conversations-both ways.

During our two-month trip I took the Leebs to as many art museums as we could fit in. When I met the Leebs and Dominique when they arrived by boat in New York, Nat wanted in a subtle way to impress me that I wouldn't be paying for their food and lodging while we traveled. He showed me pictures of a pair of race track paintings by Degas which he had just purchased.

I would learn that Nat was more than one of the finest colorist painters of the 20th century. He was an astonishing connoisseur and owner of a fabulous collection of art spanning four centuries.

I wanted the Leebs to have more than a cursory introduction to America. I took them to a concert by the Minneapolis Symphony, a snowy entrance to Yellowstone via the East entrance, a party in Salt Lake given by Fran's brother and wife to introduce the Leebs to Maurice Abravanel, Disneyland, the Ice Capades in San Antonio, an American college football game in the Orange Bowl, a visit to Cape Canaveral, and a stop at Jekyll Island in Georgia.

It was during this trip that Nat introduced me to oil tycoon Alger Meadows. My mother had joined us in Walnut Creek, CA for the trip back to Bethesda. Meadows invited the four of us to lunch in his exclusive oilmen's club high in one of the Dallas skyscrapers. Then on the following Sunday we were invited to brunch at his Turtle Creek home. There we saw the dining room full of watercolors and met the man who had sold them to Algur, Fernand Legros.

In time the watercolors, and other things sold by Legros, were identified as fakes, and Fernand Legros took his place as the most notorious rascal I encountered. I have written about the Legros-Jeppson-Leeb legal encounters. In the end, Legros went to prison, where he died.

Two other rascals dwell in this Pantheon: Steven Straw and Claire Eates. Both were Ponzi art practicioners.

Straw operated in a seaside town in Massachusetts. On one of the four big road trips I took with Leeb, we met Straw. Straw wanted to purchase a small Mary Cassatt oil painting from Leeb. Immediately after Straw gave Nat a check for the painting, Nat went to the bank and cashed it. A good move.

Young Straw was impressive. He tootled about in his own airplane. But he had the bad habit of selling half interests in paintings to multiple dupes. If necessary, he'd pay off one investor with money from the next.

Straw went to prison.

But before Straw was found out, Nat had consigned to him the two great Harnett paintings he had discovered in a German hunting lodge. I helped get them back.

Claire Eates was different, less pretentious, but eventually brought to justice for operating like Straw on a smaller scale. She worked from her home in the New Jersey countryside.

Frances and I developed a close friendship with Claire. I had a very large Mary Cassatt portrait that had been authenticated by Adelyn Breeskin and exhibited in Kyoto, Japan. It belonged to Leeb. Claire said she had a client for it, and I let her take it, along with ten oil paintings by William Henry Clapp, which were mine.

I received a distraught call from Claire. Police with a civil court order had swept into her home and seized all the art, including the Cassatt. They had missed the Clapps. Come quick!

Not knowing a thing about what was going on-and I wasn't about to tell him-Nat wanted his Cassatt back.

What followed was a Grand Guignol adventure.

Fran and I sped to New Jersey, where her sister lived. From our friends at Marriott we had referral to a lawyer. We gave a deposition. Our lawyer got a court order returning the painting to me. The opposing lawyers ignored it, went into hiding. Our lawyer, with his girlfriend, Frances, and I went to the country house where the other lawyers operated. No one there but secretaries. Who knew nothing.

Our lawyer summoned a policeman. There was a locked door. The officer refused to break the door. Then he was called away to answer a fire alarm. Our lawyer kicked down the door, maybe to impress his girlfriend. Every piece of art was individually wrapped up. There was no inventory or identification. We started tearing off the wrappers.

"It's a big painting," I said. "Skip the small stuff."

We found the Cassatt. I was under orders from Leeb to take the painting to JFK airport and sent it back to France.

I put the painting in my car and took off, just as one of the other lawyers, who supposedly was out of the country, showed up. As I took off, Phil said to Frances, "Stand behind the lawyer's car so he can't chase."

I had no idea how to get from New Jersey to JFK. And I imagined that at any minute I could be pursued by New Jersey State Police. The thought did not reassure me.

So I drove straight to me sister-in-law's.

Rosemary was a very conservative, law-abiding woman.

She greeted my arrival. "Fran called. She said not to wait but go straight to JFK. She said she was in jail."[So was Phil and his girlfriend.]

Rosemary said the police might be looking for a station wagon driven by a single male. So we transferred the Cassatt to her car, and she drove us to JFK, where I turned the painting over to Nat's forwarding agent, believing the painting was headed back to Paris.

After I escaped, the other lawyer charged Phil, girlfriend, and Frances with trespassing, and they were hauled off to jail. Phil then charged the other lawyer with a felony, and he, too, was jailed. Since my gang of three was charged with a misdemeanor, they could leave. Because the other man was charged with a felony, he could not leave until he made bail.

That night I took the Gang of Three to dinner. (Rosemary had had enough excitement for one day and did not come.) We laughed all through dinner at how we had pulled off the caper. Phil seriously considered filing disbarment proceedings against the other side for deliberately disobeying a court order to turn the painting over to us when we first appeared at the office.

Back in Maryland the other lawyers told me that they had obtained an involuntary bankruptcy against Claire and I was legally bound to return the Cassatt!

Fat chance!

A totally unrelated incident, but juicy: one night a few months later Frances was studying scriptures with two other women in a Potomac home when they were raided by a Montgomery County Swat Team. She feels she has had enough police adventures, but maybe that's why she likes Major Case Squad, Midsomer Murders, and Castle.

As to Claire, she was using money from the sale of one consigned painting to pay off the owner of something she had sold before. In spite of our friendship, she was trying to use the Cassatt in the same game.

Obeying a Federal subpoena, I testified on two days of her trial. Found guilty, she was trundled off to prison. I never heard from her again.


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About Lawrence Jeppson

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.

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