Police: Gallery cleared in fraud and forgery cases
Two cases investigated involving Royal Street Gallery
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
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ASPEN — An Aspen art gallery has been ruled out as a suspect in two possible art fraud and forgery investigations that were originally spurred by a complaint from an artist and owner of a different gallery.
One art fraud case is still open, Aspen police Detective Ian MacAyeal said, but Royal Street Gallery and its owners are not suspects in the continuing aspect of the investigation.
“Are they knowingly buying and selling fake art? I don’t think so,” MacAyeal said.
Allegations of art fraud were made in June 2009 by Basalt painter Tania Dibbs, who also owns a gallery on the Hyman Avenue mall in Aspen next to one of three galleries that Royal Street operates. Dibbs said she spotted a painting in Royal Street Gallery that looked too similar to a 2004 painting of hers called “Valley Beyond” to be a coincidence.
Upon examination of the alleged knock-off, Dibbs alleged she spotted tell-tale signs that it was really a print made with a sophisticated ink jet printer. She claimed it was touched up with paint to make it appear more authentic.
Royal Street Gallery co-owner Peter Calamari said last June he doesn’t sell prints. The similarity between the painting he was selling and Dibbs’ work was a coincidence, he said in a June 17, 2009, article in The Aspen Times.
The Aspen Police Department took a complaint from Dibbs in October 2009, and the case eventually passed from one detective to another after the original officer left the department, MacAyeal said. Officers determined the issues, including copyright infringement and international fraud, were outside the scope of the Aspen Police Department.
“When you’re talking about international crime, that’s outside of our purview,” MacAyeal said.
“The case was basically closed,” he added.
The FBI also declined to undertake an investigation, according to MacAyeal.
Dave Joly, spokesman for the FBI in Denver, confirmed that the agency did look into a complaint involving the Aspen galleries.
“I don’t want to call it an investigation, but we have looked into it,” he said.
The agency consulted with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is charged with pursuing FBI cases, but no action was taken, Joly said.
Denver TV channel News4 revived interest in the case with a story in May. After that report, Dibbs asked the police department about the status of the case, which was then assigned to MacAyeal. He talked to her in June but found the case nearly impossible to pursue because of the lack of evidence. The alleged copy of Dibbs’ work was no longer at Royal Street Gallery.
At that time, Dibbs informed MacAyeal that she was aware of an Aspen resident who had purchased a different painting from Royal Street Gallery. Dibbs had contacted that art collector, checked the painting and suspected it was really a forged print. MacAyeal said he pursued that lead and opened a new case. After thoroughly checking the evidence, he said he is convinced the painting is an original by the artist Craig Alan. He plans to talk to the artist soon and expects to verify the painting’s authenticity.
The police department took the unusual step Wednesday afternoon of issuing a press release saying no charges would be filed in the Royal Street art case after a “thorough” investigation.
“This is an extremely high-profile case,” MacAyeal said in reference to the issuance of the press release.
Dibbs and Calamari had significantly different reactions. Calamari was happy to hear his name was cleared.
“I think people have jumped to conclusions and judged us,” he said.
Calamari said he has been repeatedly forced to defend himself against rumors that he played a role in the forging of paintings, which he denies. If he had commissioned a forgery of Dibbs’ work it would make no sense to display it in such a careless manner next to her own gallery, he said.
Calamari said he has never been contacted by the FBI, nor did he have contact with Aspen police until he had his attorney call them to ask if he was the subject of an investigation after he was questioned by a reporter. Calamari said he was told he was linked to the case because the paintings in question were in his galleries, but that his galleries weren’t the focus of the police investigation.
“I was unjustly accused and caught up in it,” he said.
Calamari said the painting that was the subject of Dibbs’ complaint came from Mississippi. “I rolled it up and sent it back where it came from,” he said.
Calamari said he obtains art from artists and brokers, and has accepted pieces on consignment, but is now leery of the latter practice.
He was more contrite in an interview with News4 that aired Thursday night; it was taped before the Aspen police released their statement on Wednesday. In that interview, Calamari acknowledged two paintings in his gallery appeared to be copies of other artists’ work and he suggested he had been duped by some art brokers.
Dibbs questioned the meticulousness of the Aspen Police Department’s work on the case. “The first time they sent anyone to talk to me [about details of her complaint] was last month,” she said. “I think that it’s fishy. I made my complaint in June or July ’09.”
In addition, she said she had provided police with the name of a person who worked for Calamari at a New Orleans gallery who would confirm his business practices. She said that source was never contacted by police.
Dibbs said her concern goes beyond the alleged copying of her painting. She remains convinced — despite the outcome of the police investigation — that Royal Street Gallery’s “business model” is to sell prints based on copies of other artists’ work.
She said she is concerned actions like that by one gallery taint all Aspen art galleries.
Aspen Times reporter Janet Urquhart contributed to this report.