THE CASE OF THE COUNTERFEIT O’KEEFFES

When Gerald Peters arrived in Santa Fe in the mid 1960s, he had long hair, drove a pickup truck, and lived in an old adobe that he fixed up himself. In between classes in Plato and Kant at St. John’s College, he and a friend went up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains and hauled pinon wood down to the plaza to sell for cash. He found Western scene paintings and sold them to galleries on Canyon Road. His enterprise and knack for producing sales impressed local painters, including the doyenne of the artistic community, Georgia O’Keeffe. By the mid-1970s, he had become her regular dealer, a relationship that laid the foundation for what is today the largest art and real estate empire in Santa Fe, with outposts in New York and in Dallas at the Pillsbury & Peters Gallery.

“My relationship with O’Keeffe was always clean, always very straightforward,” Peters explained recently in his spacious Santa Fe gallery, which wraps around a hillside on the eastern edge of downtown like a low-slung adobe fortress. The gallery is the largest in town, larger than many museums. At 52. Gerald Peters is a thoughtfui, sofi-spoken person, whose cardigan sweater and boat moccasins make him seem more like a rumpled academic than a successful businessman who regularly flies to New York in his own jet. Loose papers are arranged in untidy stacks on practically every available surface of his large office, which is furnished Santa Fe style with a suite of comfortable leather furniture, an adobe fireplace, and, on the mantel, a picture of the dealer in a black Stetson hat on a roundup at a friend’s ranch.

Like many people who knew O’Keeffe, Peters adopts a quiet, reverential tone when he mentions the artist’s name. Because of the sensual, quasi-spiritual nature of O’Keeffe’s paintings, the artist had become a “religion” as early as the 1920s, in the assessment of her husband and art impresario, Alfred Stieglitz. By the time Peters met her in New Mexico in the 1970s, the next-to-last decade of her long life, she had become the unofficial Oracle of the Desert, and many people tried to secure invitations to see her in her compound in remote Abiquiu, 45 minutes north of Santa Fe. “O’Keeffe didn’t want you to sell to speculators or people who didn’t really want to live with her work,” Peters said. “She only wanted to sell a couple of pictures per year, just enough to live on.”

Peters impressed O’Keeffe with his sincerity by offering to sell her work without taking a cash commission if she would agree, in turn, to give him a painting after he had sold a certain number. “I am only interested in the art,” he told her. That seemed to satisfy the artist, who watched her art sales like a hawk. Most of Peters’ direct dealings with O’Keeffe went through Juan Hamilton, the artist’s much younger associate. “One day Miss O’Keeffe called and said, ’Time to settle up,’” Peters explained. “This was in the early 1980s. I drove up to her house in Abiquiu and we had the typical O’Keeffe lunch of watercress salad and a glass of wine. She and Juan had pulled out some paintings that she wanted me to select from. I picked ’The Black Cross,’ a 1929 painting of a cross against a red background. She told me that she painted it after a walk in a field in Taos where there was a large black cross and a hut.”

Being given a work of art hand-selected by O’Keeffe was quite an honor, and it went a long way to securing Peters’ place in Santa Fe. He still owns “The Black Cross” and says that he will never sell it. From that point on, Peters took a straight commission on sales of O’Keeffe paintings and became a member of the small circle that moved around the artist in Santa Fe and New York.

He has sold more than 170 O’Keeffes since 1976, more than any other single dealer in the history of the artist except Stieglitz himself. Most of those pictures have come directly from the artist or her estate. As the dealer who was closest to O’Keeffe before she died in 1986, Peters has been in many big O’Keeffe deals. He is the man to go to when the subject is Georgia O’Keeffe.



In the summer of 1987, Peters received a call from an agent who had a client with 29 O’Keeffe watercolors paint-:€d 70 years earlier in Canyon, Texas. O’Keeffe developed her signature style during the years she spent teaching El in Amarillo and Canyon from 1912 to 1917. Using simple forms that were found in an exercise book t’orinstruc-|on in art for children, she created bold, abstract drawings, both in watercolor and charcoal. When the artist left anyon hastily in 1917, she left some artwork behind, and biographers have often wondered what those works were. Among the works offered to Peters were several watercolors that were done with an unstudied crudeness that made them seem like the artist’s early attempts at certain themes. Peters was immediately inclined to believe that these were by O’Keeffe. “Looking at them next to the similar examples, you could see how they were works in progress and why O’Keeffe could have decided to leave behind with a friend,” he told me.

Peters took the watercolors to Hamilton, who was the chief heir of O’Keeffe’s $100 million estate. Hamilton agreed the drawings looked like O’Keeffes. Peters then took the drawings to all of the O’Keeffe experts; they said they looked right. He hired the paper conservator O’Keeffe had used to determine whether the dates matched the paper, and she said that with one exception the paper was right. He rejected that one drawing.

He also investigated the provenance of the watercolors, which is the record of the hands they have gone through since they were created. The drawings were said to have come from Ted Reid. one of O’Keeffe s students at West Texas State Normal University in Canyon and her alleged lover. Peters was told by the agent was that O’Keeffe had left the drawings with Reid. Reid. in turn, had given them in a package to Emilio Caballero. a former chair of the art department at West Texas, which is now West Texas A&M. He, in turn, gave the package to his daughter-in-law. Terry Lee Caballero, who was also Ted Reid’s granddaughter. When Terry Lee discovered what was in the package, she decided to sell the watercolors.

Peters was inclined to believe the story because he knew the name Caballero from an earlier art deal. When O’Keeffe was still alive he had purchased a monoprint, “Untitled (Portrait of Dorothy True),” that Caballero said he discovered in one of the closets of the art department at West Texas. Peters had taken the print to O’Keeffe, who not only authenticated it. but also went so far as to identify the subject of the print as her former classmate Dorothy True.

After eight months of negotiation. Peters paid Terry Lee Caballero $ 1.25 million for the watercolors now known as “Canyon Suite.” For the next two years, the drawings were on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. so that other major O’Keeffe scholars could inspect them. In 1993. R.Crosby Kemper, CEO of UMB Financial Corporation, paid Peters $3.6 million in cash, plus a house in Colorado worth $ 1.4 million, for 24 of the water-colors, which entered the collection of the newly formed Kemper Museum in Kansas City.

Six years later. Peters was sitting at this desk in Santa Fe when the phone rang. It was Kemper, calling to say-that he had just received a letter from Ruth E. Fine, curator of modern prints and drawings at the National Gallery (and one of the scholars who originally said that the drawings were authentic), and Elizabeth Glassman. president of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation in Santa Fe. The letter stated that the watercolors were not going to be included in the upcoming edition of the Catalogue Raissone the National Gallery and O’Keeffe Foundation were preparing to show the artist’s entire ouvre, The letter stated that the works had not met the committee’s criteria for works on paper, and it was accompanied by a printed description of those criteria. After seven years of analyzing O’Keeffe’s entire output, the committee had concluded that O’Keeffe rarely worked in watercolors after the 1930s and almost never returned to earlier themes, which meant that the later works were most likely not by the artist.

Another major problem was the paper. By the time the Catalogue Raissone was completed the paper conservator Peters had relied on had been supplanted by Ruth Fine. Fine studied all of the extant O’Keeffe works on paper and learned details about O’Keeffe paper that no one had previously known. Her notable rinding was that O’Keeffe consistently used the same small number of papers throughout her career. With one exception, those papers were not found in “Canyon Suite.” The dates were wrong, too. Some of the paper was not available in the United States before the 1930s; others were from the 1960s.

No one came out and said that the paintings were fakes, but because they were rejected by the Catalogue, they would be forever suspect. “I was speechless,” Peters told me. “I refused to believe that they were not by O’Keeffe. They were so consistent with her way of thinking.” He didn’t hesitate to tell Kemper that although he still thought they were O’Keeffes, he would refund his money. “1 didn’t have to give it back to him legally, but ethically I felt obliged.” Peters explained. “This kind of thing has never happened to me, and I always said if it did 1 would honor my word as a dealer, which is that everything I sell is guaranteed to be what I sell it as.” After some negotiation over terms, Peters refunded Kemper his money and the drawings were relumed to him in Santa Fe, He launched his own investigation into the origins of the drawings under the direction of Fred Smith, a former New Mexico assistant district attorney who had prosecuted another case involving fraudulent O’Keeffes.

“What happened to Gerry is probably the worst thing that can happen to an art dealer,” says a Santa Fe dealer who asked not to be named. “He was clearly set up.” To prove his innocence. Peters has responded to the case by releasing the contents of his hies, making himself available for interviews, and asking others who directly involved with the case to speak to me for this story. The origin of the watercolors remains a mystery. There are, however, clues.

If Peters had visited Amarillo and nearby Canyon, Texas (the way 1 did in the summer of 1987 to conduct research for my book O’Keeffe: The Life of An American Legend), he might have been more suspicious of anything coming out of West Texas. During my visit. 1 discovered that the artist had made a lasting impression on the place, despite the fact that she was only there for three school terms and left before the end of the final term. A small ad in the classified section of the Amarillo Globe-News brought me to the attention of several people who were happy to talk about their relationship with O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe was a continuous feast for artsy people in West Texas.

O’Keeffe was born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wis., and studied art and education at the University of Virginia before she traveled to Amarillo in 1912. From the time she was a little girl she had romanticized about going out West like her father who attempted to homestead in the Dakota Territory. To most people, Amarillo in 1912 was the end of the earth-a dusty, barren collection of frame buildings on a treeless plain where a north-south train crossed an east-west train. But to O’Keeffe it was the beginning. “This was my country.” she recalled in 1919. “terrible winds and a wonderful openness. And the sky,” she later wrote to a friend back East. “You have never seen sky.”

The forlorn, ineluctable beauty of West Texas unleashed a torrent of emotion in the artist. She had been searching for a mature style by studying European abstract art and following Japanese-inspired exercises that were published in Arthur Dow’s art education manuals. Between 1912 and 1914. she was the art instructor for the Amarillo public schools. She took her students out into the plains to study the tall yellow grasses, the probable origin of the name Amarillo-Spanish for yellow.

Nearly everyone I met in West Texas knew of other people who had artwork that resembled O’Keeffe’s or were alleged to have come from the stash the artist left behind. O’Keeffe arrived at her mature style by painting very simple forms that even today look childlike in their innocence. She did not use watercolor much after the 1920s, but in those early years, it was her primary form of expression. Her subjects were daybreak on the plains, the jagged sky of the open plains when the clouds roll in from the Gulf, simple frame houses, and blocky human fig-ures. During the period she was in Amarillo, she destroyed or threw away almost all of her works. By the lime she returned to nearby Canyon in 1916 to teach art and design at West Texas State Normal College, she had started to gain more confidence in what she was producing, in large part because she had been discovered by Stieglitz.

One of her students in Canyon was a local boy by the name of Ted Reid, a striking football star her age. O’Keeffe wrote to a friend back East that “we meet equally-on equal ground-frankly, freely giving-both.” and people have generally concluded that they were lovers. Reid was the son of a cattleman who had spent time out in the Great Plains driving herds north. He and O’Keeffe found common ground in a love for the outdoors. She later recalled that he “dropped her like a hot cake” after a couple of local ladies pointed out that it was unacceptable for students and teachers to date. The two didn’t resume their friendship until Reid showed up at O’Keeffe’s 1946 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Apparently Reid had a cache of drawings given to him by O’Keeffe. 1 learned this from Vivian Robinson, an arts stringer for the Amarillo Globe-News, who had studied with Emilio Caballero at West Texas State. She suggested I consult Caballero. although she cautioned me that he might not talk to me because he was selling his O’Keeffes.

As it turned out, 1 didn’t speak to Caballero on that visit, I am not sure if it was because he wouldn’t talk to me or if it was because 1 gave up after trying unsuccessfully. But I did learn more about his holdings in O’Keeffes. Robinson answered my ad because she had interviewed O’Keeffe for the Globe-News in the late 1960s in New Mexico. After finding out from a friend where O’Keeffe lived. Robinson had driven out to Ghost Ranch, one of O’Keeffe’s two properties in Abiquiu. A U-shaped hacienda with fragrant sage bush growing out of the cracks in the patio, built in the 1920s for millionaires from back East, her house at Ghost Ranch was on a broad. open plain that was surrounded by magnificent red and yellow rocks, with a fiat-topped mountain in the dislance that locals call O’Keeffe Mountain because she painted it so many times.

At first. O’Keeffe refused to see Robinson. She relented after her visitor informed her that she had brought with her four drawings that O’Keeffe had left behind in Canyon. Caballero had found them in the art department and gave them to Robinson to authenticate. Robinson told me that when O’Keeffe opened the door, she grabbed the drawings and went back into her house and refused to come out. Robinson wouldn’t leave until O’Keeffe gave her the drawings back, which she eventually did. “She told me that three of them were by her, and one was not,” Robinson recalled.

Earlier this year I was able to get Caballero on the phone. At 82. Caballero is a courtly, professorial figure who has an intimate knowledge of the life and work of O’ Keeffe. At first hesitant about talking to me. he consented after learning trial 1 knew about Robinson’s trip to see O’Keeffe. He cautioned me that he never represented anything that he sold as O’Keeffes. “I’ve only said that by precedent these could be by O’Keeffe,” he said. We had several inierviews over the course of a couple of days that were often punctuated by outbursts in which he would announce that everything he had told me was off the record and that he didn’t want me to print anything he said.

Like O’Keeffe. Caballero came to West Texas from the East, He was bom in New Jersey in 1917. By the time Caballero arrived at West Texas State in 1940. O’Keeffe was already a famous artist and he was an undergraduate in art education. “Ted Reid is the only person I knew that knew her well.’’ Caballero explained. “1 met Ted the day 1 came to Canyon back in 1940. Knowing that 1 was an art teacher, we had long discussions about art over the many years. Ted told me that il is not true what biographers say about being her boyfriend. Let the world know that Ted was a gentleman of the first order. He was kind and considerate.”

Like many people who came under the sway of O’Keeffe. Caballero has a strong personal identification with the artist. “Our lives are so closely aligned.” he told me. “i was bom the year she came to Canyon. She attended Columbia Teacher’s College. 1 attended Columbia Teacher’s College. She taught at the old Horace Mann School. 1 had a fellowship to Horace Mann School. She had a professor called Professor Young when she was there, and Young was professor of my dissertation committee. You see how these things relate? 1 have about 20 incidents where 0*Keeffe”s life and my life are so parallel.”

Caballero went on to tell me that he sat in the same chairs as O’Keeffe, washed his brushes in the same sink, and saw the same illustrations that O’Keeffe used for her classes. He used the same glass slides she used to teach his classes. ’The thing is that 1 walked in the same path as Miss O’Keeffe.” Caballero said. “I literally walked on the same floor she walked on.”

Caballero is also an accomplished watercolorist. an accomplishment he was not as happy to relate. T am an art educator, sir,” he told me, “not an artist.” He later admitted that he has probably produced hundreds of watercolors over the past 60 years, but he maintains that his style is different than O’Keeffe’s. In the late 1950s, the an department moved to a new building, and Caballero, his wife, Mary, and a few others cleaned out the flies one Sunday afternoon. The Caballeros took a number of artworks home with them that day.

Word got out in Canyon that the Caballeros had O’Keeffes hanging on their walls. In the early 1960s, he invited some people from New Mexico who had come to Canyon for an arts festival to his home for cake and coffee, and they offered to buy a couple of his O’Keeffe drawings for $1,200. “My goodness, at that time a few dollars was a lot of money,” said Caballero. T never said they were by O’Keeffe.’” he said, repeating what was becoming his mantra. In 1966, Robinson came over to the house to write an article for the local paper on Caballero’s collection, and she, too, said that she had heard he had O’Keeffes. “I said. ’Vivian. I am getting these reports over and over. 1 said no. They are not signed, and we don’t know if they are O’Keeffes.’”

By now. Caballero had Robinson’s authentication-from O’Keeffe herself-that at least three of the drawings were in fact O’Keeffes. A number of years later, he was visited by a Santa Fe dealer named Andrew Smith, who paid him $1,250 for the linoprint that Peters eventually bought. Even though Caballero had Robinson’s letter, he maintains that he still claimed that he did not know whether they were O’Keeffes. In fact, sources close to the Peters investigation say that more than 50 O’Keeffes, including “Canyon Suite.” passed through Caballero’s hands. “We gave things away to people.” Caballero said. T didn’t know whether they were by O’Keeffe. I never told anyone they were by O’Keeffe. We just liked them. We had them on the walls in frames.”

Caballero said that in 1975 he was in his office at West Texas State when Reid visited him. “Ted knew I was having philosophical differences with the school administration. So he came by to commiserate,” said Caballero. (Caballero stepped down as chairman of the department that year and retired in 1979.) Caballero says that Reid placed a carefully wrapped package in brown paper on his desk, “He asked if he might leave il with me until some lime at which it would be more convenient for him to pick it up. I took the package and put it in one of the cardboard boxes along with other personal items I had been moving from my office to another one 1 had been assigned to, Eventually these boxes with Ted’s package were taken home and stored in our garage.

“Some years later, our son Charles and his wife, Terry, Ted’s granddaughter, moved back to Amarillo into our vacant house, which we had moved from to our present residence on the outskirts of Amarillo. It was then, in this process of moving, that I discovered Ted’s package. It was only logical and right that 1 gave the package-which was never opened while in my possession-to Terry Lee Caballero,”

I asked Caballero why he never opened the package, considering what he already knew about Reid’s relationship with O’Keeffe. “I am a gentleman, sir.” he replied indignantly. “1 would never open anyone’s package they had left with me for safekeeping.” I asked why he hadn’t given it to Ruby Reid, Ted’s widow, and he said that it had not occurred to him. “Terry Lee was the closest relative of Ted’s that 1 was in contact with. So 1 thought she should have the package.” Caballero was in regular contact with Reid after he received the package from him. Why didn’t he return his package to him? “I forgot about it.” he said, “and he never brought it up.”

Since both O’Keeffe and Reid are dead it is only possible to speculate on what might have transpired between them. During her lifetime, O’Keeffe occasionally gave her art away to people she liked, and she clearly liked Reid. But would she have given him 29 drawings? And when did she give them to him? Before he dropped her like a hot cake? After he dropped her like a hot cake? The way they parted company implies a fairly clean break. Why wouldn’t he have given them back at that time? Why wouldn’t she have asked for them back? The only way to explain the later dating of the paper is that O’Keeffe gave them to Reid at a later date. But when?

Given the overall pattern of the artist’s life, it is highly unlikely that O’Keeffe gave Reid the drawings in the 1960s or 1970s, which is the only way that these drawings could be legitimate, given the range of dates. If that were true. O’Keeffe would have had to return to her earlier themes. That doesn’t stop the argument from being made, although there are no surviving watereolors from this period to support this contention. She did have an exhibition in 1958 in New York of water-colors done in Canyon. What’s more, Jacobo Suazo, a local New Mexico man who lived with O’Keeffe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. says that he worked with O’Keeffe on watercolors that returned to those early themes. In a bizarre twist, he even claims to have done three of the watercolors in “Canyon Suite” himself-and has applied for a copyright. But if she did return to earlier themes, she didn’t keep the results. And it is unlikely thai Georgia O’Keeffe would give away a group of watercolors that she herself was not happy with.

The most likely scenario for this group of watercolors, say sources close to the investigation, is that O’Keeffe gave Reid a number of watercolors when they were going out. probably one at a time on each of their dates. There are about 10 in the group that resemble other watercolors from this period, notably one that depicts the sky with crows, one with light coming on the plains, and a standing nude. Although paper dates remain a problem, further analysis by other experts might reverse the Catalogue committee’s decision. What’s more, some of the watercolors in question are strikingly similar to O’Keeffes that were relatively unknown until late 1987, around the time the drawings were presented to Peters, leading experts to believe that some of the works in “Canyon Suite” may well be authentic O’Keeffes; they appear to have been studies for later works. “The others in the group were probably students’ works swooped up from the schoolroom floor in Canyon or later copies made to complete the package,” says art historian Barbara Rose.



“The collégial side of this business is really important to me, and scholars and the technical people are resources 1 need. Here’s a case where we had that resource, used it, and it didn’t work.” Peters says as he takes me on a tour of the backroom facilities in his new gallery. At 44,000 square feet, the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, opened in 1998. is a state-of-the-art gallery with a full conservation lab, storage, and photography facilities in the enormous sub-basements. Peters has rooms devoted to Remington, to Western scene art, and to modern and contemporary art. but he is still the best place to go in Santa Fe to buy a fine O’Keeffe. On a recent visit I spotted an O’Keeffe landscape of a grove of feathery cottonwoods in late autumn valued at somewhere between $400.000 and $600,000.

“I used to know the prices of everything,” Peters tells me. “Bui now I don’t. I really only care about the art.” he adds pointedly. It’s not been a good time for Peters. His beloved father died last year. He was also involved in the sale of an Albert Bierstadt painting to David Rockefeller that turned out to be wrongfully attributed, and he had to refund the money. 1 first met Peters more than 10 years ago in his gallery, and I have been to his home on two occasions for large events, but I never felt that he was fully present. He is one of those quiet tinanciers who always seem to be drifting in a sea of numbers while he attempts to talk to you. This time is different. He makes an effort to be friendly and personable, seemingly changed by circumstances.

He has even mellowed about the Caballero O’Keeffes, which he plans to give away to a museum under the condition that they never be sold. For a perfectionist who is painstaking about details and cautiously guards his public personae. this has been a bitter pill for him to swallow, say friends. When Kemper first alerted him, he look the matter to the FBI. But the FBI determined that the statute of limitations on the sale has expired, and they closed the case. Even if Peters were able to prove that Caballero faked most or all of “Canyon Suite,” he would not be able to charge him in a criminal court. Yet this doesn’t really bother him. “He’s an old man.” he says. “He has probably already spent the money. What would I get out of it?

“If I had it to do over again,” Peters says ruefully. “I would have gone to Amarillo and met Caballero. Then I probably would not have even bought the drawings.” With a little bit of prompting, he began to talk about O’Keeffe and the people he has met over the years who identified closely with the artist. “O’Keeffe attracts people who over-project, want to become a part of her.” A large number of people who moved to Santa Fe in the 1960s did so because they wanted to live on a windswept plain in splendid isolation like O’Keeffe. Peters has made a great deal of money nurturing that romance, but he does not consider himself to be one of those bitten by the O’Keeffe bug. O’Keeffe herself used to look upon the cult with sardonic detachment. An often-told story has it that one day a group of people arrived at her house and asked to “see” Georgia O’Keeffe. Standing in the doorway she said, “Front side.” Then she turned around. “Back side.” Looking over her shoulder she said, “Goodbye,” then slammed the door shut.

“I know one thing for sure,” Peters said. “O’Keeffe is having a good laugh from the beyond over all of this.”

They were found in a package left by her West Texas lover. Santa Fe and Dallas art dealer Gerald Peters recognized them as O’Keeffes, bought them, and sold them at a huge profit to the Kemper Museum. Then he was told they are fakes. One of her students in Canyon was a local boy named Ted Reid, a striking football star her age. O’Keeffe wrote to a friend back East that “we meet equally- on equal ground-frankly, freely giving-both.”

Caballero is also an accomplished watercolorist, an accomplishment he was not happy to relate. “I am an art educator, sir,” he told me, “not an artist.” He later admitted to producing hundreds of watercolors.

In a bizarre twist, Jacobo Suazo, a local New Mexico man who lived with O’Keeffe, claims to have done three of the watercolors in “Canyon Suite” himself- and has applied for a copyright.

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