Spyrka purchased a painting at a 2001 charity auction at Montclair Kimberley Academy, a private school attended by his three children.
The painting was advertised in the auction catalog as an original piece by William Mason Brown, a 19th-century American landscape artist. The catalog gave the 25-by-30-inch framed painting an estimated value of between $18,000 and $25,000.
Spyrka won the auction, paying $16,000 for the 1869 painting.
In March 2009, he took the painting to Christie’s, where he planned to sell it at auction. But the famous fine art auction house said it couldn’t authenticate the painting.
Translation: The painting may be a fake.
“I tried to handle this directly and they chose to not follow the school guidelines of ‘ethics’ in their dealings regarding this issue,” he said.
EXPERTS, LAWYER HIRED
For many months, Spyrka said, Montclair Kimberley did not respond to his letters and e-mails about the painting’s questionable authenticity.
While he waited for the school to respond, Spyrka hired two other art experts to examine the painting, including the owner of Alexander Gallery in New York, who said in a written report he has purchased and sold many other paintings by this artist over the past 40 years. The expert opinions supported what Christie’s said: Something was wrong with the painting.
“I feel that there is a problem with the signature and date of this painting,” Alexander Gallery owner Alexander Acevado said in a written report.
Spyrka also hired a lawyer. More time passed, and finally, after Spykra’s attorney threatened legal action, the school’s attorney asked if its own expert could inspect the painting. Spyrka said yes.
In a September 2009 letter, Montclair’s attorney said its expert determined “the painting in question is an attractive 19th-century landscape in a substantial gold frame with a value roughly commensurate with the price which you paid for it. Nothing suggests that the painting has been altered.”
The school refused to identify its “expert,” nor could that “expert” authenticate the painting.
“The school has evaluated your claim and concluded that it has done nothing wrong. It will make no voluntary payment,” the attorney wrote.
After spending $3,500 on attorney’s fees, Spyrka decided to represent himself going forward, and he contacted Bamboozled.
GETTING IN CONTACT
Bamboozled contacted Montclair Kimberley Academy and the donor of the painting, Fred Ross, chairman of the Art Renewal Center, an online charitable art education foundation with addresses in Port Reading, N.J., and Glenham, N.Y.
Tom Nammack, headmaster of Montclair Kimberley, said the school makes no claim about the authenticity of the items for sale. But Nammack could not produce the auction brochure, which reportedly said the school makes no representations about the authenticity of any of the pieces offered.
Nammack also refused to identify the school’s “expert,” but he said authenticity wasn’t the issue.
“It was very important to our decision not to reimburse Mr. Spyrka that the expert told us that this was a genuine 19th-century American landscape that could be sold at auction or in a gallery for a price in the range of what Mr. Spyrka paid for it,” he said in an e-mail to Bamboozled.
So even if it’s not a William Mason Brown painting, as advertised, it’s a nice enough painting for $16,000?
We turned to Fred Ross, the donor of the painting, whose children also attended Montclair Kimberley. Ross said when the school was seeking donations for the auction, he donated the painting in question, along with five or six other works.
Ross said he had no reason to think it was a fake.
“The artist himself was a minor artist with a minor following, and if someone was going to forge a signature on a painting, why would they choose that person? That artist? It doesn’t really make any sense,” he said.
Plus, Ross argued, people who buy items at charity auction aren’t looking to make a bundle.
“They’re doing it not because they want to make an investment, but to support the school,” he said. “I didn’t make a penny on it.”
Well, Ross did benefit from a tax deduction for the donation, didn’t he?
“Yes, that’s true, but it was less than what (the painting) cost,” he said.
(A tax deduction was not available to Spyrka. He could have taken a deduction only if he paid more for the painting than its estimated value at the time of the auction.)
Bamboozled asked Ross if he’d be willing to buy back the painting. He declined.
Spyrka said he wasn’t surprised by the school’s or the donor’s responses.
But he’s not giving up. He’s reconsidering hiring an attorney, but most are asking for fees worth 30 to 50 percent of any future compensation Spryka wins. He’s also looking at other legal avenues.
“I have spoken with the Montclair police about filing theft/fraud charges, to which they have agreed I have a right to do against both the school and the donor,” Spyrka said in an e-mail.
We’ll let you know what he decides.
WHAT TO DO
If you bid at a charity auction, make sure you know what you’re buying.
Before you plunk down a lot of money for art, jewelry or any other item, make sure you like it. If you’re making the purchase solely to support the charity and authenticity doesn’t matter, buy away.
But if you’re buying because the item is supposed to be by a particular craftsman or artist, and the auction-holder cannot guarantee authenticity, ask if you can bring your own expert to take a look before you bid. Or see if you have a certain amount of time after the auction to have the item authenticated, so you have recourse in case something’s not kosher.