Victims of consignment thievery are still owed more than $400,000, and one man's trail of misdeeds may haunt the Northwest art scene indefinitely.
Morris Graves’ 1940s painting “Chalices,” valued at $25,000, is still missing. Mark Tobey’s 1932 drawing “Portrait of Richard Odlin” hangs in limbo, donated to Cornish College of the Arts without the owner’s permission.
Former Seattle art dealer Kurt Lidtke, who was convicted of stealing artworks and still owes victims more than $400,000, left a tangle of deception in his wake that may never fully be unraveled. The scale and duration of his misdeeds are unprecedented in the Northwest art trade and have rattled a community accustomed to doing business on trust and a handshake.
Lidtke is set to be sentenced today in King County Superior Court, facing up to 43 months in prison for selling consigned artworks without paying the owners — crimes first brought to light in a 2004 Seattle Times investigation. He was charged last year with 20 counts of theft, including failure to pay state sales tax, and he pleaded guilty to nine counts.
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In court documents, Lidtke’s lawyer, John Henry Browne, says that alcohol and cough-syrup addictions led to the collapse of Lidtke’s business and that the criminal charges were “a wake up call for Kurt.” Browne told The Times his client, who has undergone substance-abuse treatment, “is very healthy right now.”
Judge Sharon Armstrong’s sentencing of Lidtke will close an unsavory chapter in the region’s art history and perhaps bring a measure of satisfaction to the dozens of people he cheated. But it won’t resolve the problems he created.
Lidtke played a shell game with valuable art and artifacts. He sold consigned artworks and then, instead of paying the original owners, sometimes traded them paintings consigned by other people. He targeted elderly and vulnerable clients, as well as sophisticated art buyers. He even took advantage of the goodwill and trust of other art dealers, including two of the region’s most respected: Seattle’s Francine Seders and Portland’s Laura Russo.
Along the way, he pocketed checks for upward of $50,000, keeping the original owners’ money and the sales tax, too. Many victims have neither been paid nor retrieved their lost artworks, and tracking the art has been difficult because Lidtke left sketchy records and lied to clients.
Lidtke’s plea agreement includes a promise to return artworks or pay restitution to the people he cheated and to the state. But given his track record, many aren’t holding their breath.
“The judge will set the restitution amount, and it will be a very high amount,” Browne said. “It’s a question of how much he can earn over the next 10 years. … “
So where does that leave Lidtke’s victims?
Even with judgments against Lidtke in civil court, some people haven’t been able to collect their artworks or their money. And, in an odd twist, even when artworks are located, lawyers say, it may not be easy to recover them. That’s because if the original owners authorized Lidtke to sell the works for them on consignment, the buyer can claim legal ownership. Then it becomes a collection problem for the original owner.
There is an exception: Buyers might be considered complicit if they knew they were paying unusually low or “distressed” prices, or that Lidtke was not paying for the artwork.
In other words, says King County Prosecutor John Carver: “It’s a mess.”
And there’s a further complication when insurance companies get involved.
That’s the case in one of the more bizarre instances, where Lidtke actually gave a Tobey drawing to Cornish as if it were his own. “Portrait of Richard Odlin,” by the Northwest’s most famous artist, was consigned to Lidtke by Texas art collector James Clark, who expected it to be sold. Clark didn’t even get the tax write-off for Lidtke’s largesse.
Clark knew nothing about that when he sued Lidtke for 13 missing Tobeys. When Clark couldn’t collect on a judgment for $245,650, he eventually settled with his insurance company. Then some of his paintings were located in private collections and at Cornish. Now his insurance company has an interest in the case: After paying its client, can the company legally go after the artwork?
There is no clear answer for how insurance companies might deal with such issues.
“Every situation is very different,” said Barbara Madigral, of Axa Art Insurance in New York, emphasizing that in legal matters, “the insurance company would make sure their interest was covered.”
At Cornish, a spokeswoman said, administrators are waiting to be contacted and are “absolutely willing to restore this to the owner.”
In other cases, clients were able to recover artworks left behind when Lidtke was evicted in 2004 from his Pioneer Square gallery. He still owes some $60,000 in rent, said Kimberly Thomas, an assistant property manager for Samis Land Co. She said the landlord has attempted to return the art to its rightful owners and now hopes to sell what hasn’t been claimed.
Actress’s last wishes
The saga of four Morris Graves paintings shows the quagmire one local family found itself in after consigning artwork with Lidtke. The paintings were owned by New York television actress Barbara Berjer Foley, who appeared in the soap operas “As the World Turns” and “The Guiding Light.” Relatives say Graves had given the paintings to Foley’s husband.
Near the end of her life, Berjer Foley decided to sell the art and put the money in a trust for her son, who was disabled by cerebral palsy. A niece on Bainbridge Island introduced her to Lidtke, who showed great interest and sent someone in New York to pick up the paintings in 2000.
When Berjer Foley died in 2002 she had received no money for the paintings. Her niece and the executor of her estate kept trying to sort things out with Lidtke.
“Lidtke was always very evasive,” said the niece, Barbara Berger (Berjer Foley had used a different spelling for her stage name). “We would have long conversations on the phone. A couple times my sister and I went in to talk to him, and we came away with no solid answers. … “
Berger, who has kept letters and documents from the art dealer spanning five years, says Lidtke always blamed other people or circumstances for his inability to pay. In one letter he cites his “very unexpected separation” from his wife.
By that time, Berger recalls, she had heard enough excuses: “I didn’t buy it.”
“Chalices” still missing
With the help of investigators, the Bergers were able to recover two of the paintings — one from the gallery landlord (using a court order), and one by undoing a trade Lidtke had made with another collector, under a deal negotiated by the prosecutor.
But the other two have not turned up, including the most valuable of the group, the signed 1940s “Chalices,” appraised by Lidtke at $25,000.
As a final twist to the story, Barbara Berger had also entrusted Lidtke with letters Graves had written to her uncle. She says Lidtke told her the letters had no monetary value but would be very interesting to historians. He offered to donate them for her to the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.
So far, the letters have not turned up.
For Berger, an artist, Lidtke’s betrayal goes beyond the insult and monetary loss to her family.
“I didn’t know Morris Graves,” she said, “but looking at the spiritual quality of his work, I just can’t imagine he would ever want his paintings used or abused this way. It’s a real violation of art, of the pure intention and labor that goes into it.”
As Lidtke’s victims await compensation, the once-successful art dealer faces yet more problems.
In August, Toronto police issued a warrant for Lidtke’s arrest on two charges of criminal harassment for repeated phone calls he made to his ex-wife, Lisa Papas. King County court documents cite Lidtke’s denigrating and at times sexually explicit phone calls and messages, as well as his telephone harassment of Papas’ mother and other relatives.
Papas, a former Seattle television reporter, now lives in Canada with the couple’s two daughters. A court-appointed guardian for the children at one point recommended a psychiatric evaluation for Lidtke. He has at least twice undergone substance-abuse treatment.
In a letter to the court, Lidtke maintains that he keeps up with his child-support payments. The state Division of Child Support disagrees; a spokesman said Lidtke owes $21,660.40 in back payments.
In addition, the IRS filed a lien against Lidtke for $38,283 in federal income tax.
Lidtke’s lawyer, Browne, said Lidtke’s personal conduct has no bearing on this case and that he will ask for a lenient sentence because his client is a first-time felon. Lidtke has not filed for bankruptcy, Browne said, and intends to pay his debts:
“I think he will do everything in his power to do that.”
Sheila Farr: email@example.com
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf and reporters Sara Jean Green and Nancy Bartley contributed to this report.