When I’m not sure what I’m doing with my family history project I can always do more research. Mostly that means chasing down names in the endless stream of associations that veer further and further from my father. One person (from his school, from his gallery, from an exhibit he was in) knows another person who knew another person. It’s a rabbit hole, yes, and more fun than productive, usually. Except that it can circle back or show patterns. You never know. Here’s one example from the last few days.
I keep a list of names to research, adding them as they come up in sources and annotating them with bits of biographical information. David Herbert, a New York City gallery owner in the late 1950s, came up often in my constellation of sources. Herbert knew Richard Brown Baker, whose diaries I had skimmed at the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago. Those diaries had turned up James Harvey, which made sense because Baker interviewed Harvey for a 1963 oral history and later donated several of Harvey’s works to the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum. My father didn’t appear anywhere in Baker’s excerpted diaries at MoMA (the originals at Yale, Baker’s alma mater, are still on my To Do list). But Herbert circled around Baker and Harvey, so maybe following that trail would lead back to my father? Since Herbert had papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art they were worth skimming.
So I spent a few hours online looking through the finding aids, first, to evaluate what might be worth traveling back to D.C. to see in person. Born David Herbert Schmerer in 1920, Herbert served in World War II in Japan, and spent the 1950s in New York working at the prestigious Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries. From 1959 to 1962 he ran his own gallery on East 69th Street. His collection at the Smithsonian stretches to nearly six linear feet of business records, correspondence, and notebooks. Some of the material was digitized so I clicked and waited for pages and pages of handwritten scrawls to load on my screen in Brooklyn. Someone had bundled and boxed these papers, transporting them from New York City to D.C. and sifting through them to organize and scan each one— in anticipation of my virtual arrival. It was humbling, and time consuming.
I found nothing on my father in the exhibition records, nothing indexed in the artist or subject files. And then, again!, the score: there was my father in Herbert’s address book. Proof…of something. The address book was an accretion of names and numbers and notes that Herbert kept for his own records, adding to them over many years and jotting down what a certain collector was interested in. The abbreviation next to my father’s name “N.F.L.” appeared elsewhere, but I couldn’t easily guess what it meant.
So what was my father’s connection to Herbert? Clearly they were in the same circles in the 1950s and early 1960s, but was there more to find out? When Herbert died in 1995 his estate went to Jaime Andrade, an Ecuadorean artist who also worked in New York City galleries. It was Andrade who later donated Herbert’s papers to the Smithsonian. A Google search led me down another rabbit hole: Andrade and Herbert played a role in the forgery scandal that brought down the long-esteemed Knoedler Gallery in 2011. It was Andrade who introduced Ann Freedman, director of the Knoedler through the 1990s and early 2000s, to the so-called “David Herbert Collection” of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces. Andrade introduced Freedman to Glafira Rosales, a Long Island art patron who claimed to be the mediator between an anonymous private collector who had inherited these previously-unknown works from his father, a wealthy Filipino (or maybe Mexican or Swiss?) businessman. The father, they said, had bought them directly from the artists back in the fifties, which is why there were no bills of sale and they appeared in no catalogues.
At first, Rosales claimed Albert Ossorio, a well-connected painter with a home in East Hampton, had been the conduit for these back-door sales. But later, when that story showed its holes, Rosales (and Freedman) claimed it had been David Herbert who had been having a secret affair with the married Filipino/Mexican/Swiss businessman and had arranged for the access to the artists. Rosales put the paintings by Pollock and Motherwell, among others, on commission with Knoedler, which ultimately sold forty paintings from this collection for some $80 million. Over the next fifteen years doubts arose about these new Diebenkorns, Motherwells, and Rothkos, but Knoedler continued to sell them. In 2001 Knoedler sold a Pollock for over two million dollars and when the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) refused to authenticate it the gallery was forced to refund the money. A few years later the FBI subpoenaed Knoedler to investigate fraud, which initiated a downward spiral of lawsuits and criminal investigations, with Freedman continuing to insist that the works were authentic.
In 2013 a couple who had purchased a supposed Rothko from Knoedler for $8.4 million dollars sued the gallery and several of its employees for racketeering, arguing that the gallery participated knowingly in a conspiracy to defraud buyers. Andrade was named as a defendant, and Herbert’s papers, by then in the Smithsonian collection, were examined for any evidence for any of the earlier stories. Nothing was found. The lawsuit transcripts describe the “Rothko” in quotes and claim the mystery collector acquired the work through Herbert, who was “so critical to many of the seminal artist and collectors of the 1950s.” In fact, Herbert seems a relatively minor figure in the art world of the time, though that address book speaks to the breadth of his connections.
Finally, in 2013 Rosales confessed that some sixty works she sold through Knoedler and another gallery were forgeries painted by “an individual residing in Queens,” according to her plea statement. The controversy, which brought up deeper questions about how art is authenticated and what responsibilities galleries have to their buyers, shone a spotlight on that world’s darker corners but also on one neglected figure among so many. What role did gallery assistants or go-betweens actually play in the production and distribution of art works, then or now, there or elsewhere? It’s not often asked and even less often revealed.
Herbert was a convenient fall guy for this plot: he died in 1995, as Rosales was first launching this scheme, and he was relatively unknown. Unlike Ossorio, who had surviving friends and associates to defend him, Herbert had only Andrade, his long-term companion who had also spent forty years working at Knoedler. The other reason Herbert was a good fall guy was the fact that he was gay, which made all this supposed secrecy plausible. The shame of gayness was conveyed through several details: the collector who was married, had children, and lived in Mexico (or the Philippines or Switzerland…). All of these factors contributed to the believability of the cover story, which fed on assumptions about homosexuality that may or may not have been true. How closeted were gay men in the art world anyway? How damaging would discovery have been? Now that I’ve gone down this rabbit hole, those seem like important questions to pursue.
This day-long detour also reveals how much posthumous reputations depend on so many factors outside one’s control: the name “David Herbert” is now a search term associated with a major scandal and criminal conspiracy. It pops up over and over in the very legal transcripts that confirm he had nothing to do with it: the “David Herbert Collection” they cite never actually existed. Likewise, the “Earle Olsen” entry in the address book makes my father one dot in a long-ago orbit. Again, an address book functions as a visual representation of a fluid and expansive network, even if it raises more questions than it answers.
The case transcripts I read and downloaded from the internet a few hours ago end with a discussion of the term “scienter,” which I had never encountered before. Apparently it is a legal term key to fraud cases that describes a “mental state embracing the intent to deceive, manipulate, or defraud.” In other words, the case depended on whether the defendants, including Andrade and Knoedler’s owner and director and other employees, were aware of the forgeries and sold them anyway. Intention, though, as literary scholars and biographers have long known as well, is extremely difficult to prove. Here the case relied on established norms: did the defendants follow customary procedures for authenticating art works? Did they take the usual precautions to review and check information? The prosecutors produced experts who demurred, saying that in this case Knoedler’s procedures were fishy, even by the notoriously unregulated and loosey-goosey art world. The defendants countered with a “buyer beware” argument that the buyers did not do their own due diligence about the work (Note: it seems a risky strategy to simultaneously want the buyer to trust the gallery’s authority and doubt it at the same time).
Finally, Freedman, Knoedler’s director through this decade of sketchy sales and lawsuits, argued that she bought some of these works herself; therefore she could not have been aware of the forgeries. The judge at the trial concluded that the jury would decide Freedman’s motives, but “it is undisputed that she used the fact that she owned Rosales Paintings as a promotional device.” In fact, Freedman’s “state of mind” (or scienter) was a major factor in the judge’s decision to let this go to trial instead of issuing a summary judgment for or against them. Subjective states of mind are hard to evaluate and demand a “full exposition of the facts,” he concluded.
Although the term came up in this criminal context, scienter seems a notion well adapted for all kinds of double-thinking that may not be nefarious. Being closeted in a homophobic environment, for example, could well necessitate a “mental state embracing an intent to deceive.” Just as Freedman and her co-defendants struggled to distinguish between what they knew and didn’t know about Rosales’s scheme, gayness in those pre-liberation days was both known and not known, communicated and obscured.
In the end, the judge concluded that Andrade, for example, was duped too: there was no evidence that he knew what had happened after he introduced Rosales to Freedman and the Knoedler. He never made any money from the sales and he only speculated about Herbert’s association with Ossorio, not with the mysterious collector himself. The judge dismissed this as “guilt by association.” It was Freedman, he implies, who latched onto Herbert as a “significant and largely unsung hero of the art world” as a means to support Rosales’s cover story.
The trial of the remaining defendants, Freedman and Knoedler, began in January 2016 and was settled out of court one month later. Some of the articles published in the aftermath focus on the buyers’ pursuit of justice for its own sake, their insistence on airing their grievance “in public.” It is that definition of “public” that seems at stake: what does it mean to conduct business (or lawsuits) in public versus in private? What does it mean to be gay in public or private? And finally, how does the public sphere represent private lives? As a biographer, that question is especially important because I am making another such representation right now, even as I sift through evidence of others. I too am making something public that may never have been intended to see the light of day.
Stay tuned for Rabbit Hole #2: about a museum of art that disappeared from the Upper East Side of Manhattan but once owned a painting by my father…. Also note that this rabbit hole ended in me finding a New Yorker article on the evolving history of the phrase “rabbit hole,” which no longer means Lewis Carroll’s alternate reality (ha, I managed to get Victoriana in here!) but any old time-suck of distractions. Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the article, describes my kind of rabbit hole as “associative” and argues that the internet “breeds rabbit holes the way rabbits breed rabbits.” She concludes that they are a guilty pleasure but also paradoxically productive, “an end in itself.” As a metaphor, the term conveys an appropriate sense of time passing and lack of control. I would also add that it conveys a sense of secrecy, the digging that explores a darkness underneath.