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Uncle Willy

As with so many professions, there is in this business the opportunity for specialization. Manhattan’s galleries have distinctive, often singular, personalities, and so do those of us who operate outside that rarified circle. My specialty in fine art of the American South was made clear early on; whether I chose it consciously or it was such an intrinsic part of who I am is my own personal chicken-and-egg quandary. Within my own forte, there are more particular areas of expertise as well. Certainly we are, by brand and depth of experience, the gallery most widely (and deservedly, I believe) associated with the art of the Charleston Renaissance. But long before that specific focus came into play, my work was inextricably linked to the works of South Carolina’s nineteenth century master, William Aiken Walker.

Affectionately known to us—as he was to his adoring nieces and nephews—as “Uncle Willy,” William Aiken Walker was born and bred in Charleston. Though little is known of his formal training, his life, oeuvre, and import are worthy of the art world’s attention and admiration. I obviously believed that to be the case when our gallery published the definitive study of Walker’s life and work in 1995. Written by art historian Cynthia Seibels, The Sunny South offered, in 272 color-saturated pages, an examination of Walker’s unique aesthetic and abundant body of work.

The works of this Reconstruction painter are all but currency. He was far more prolific than any other painter working in the South in his active years, 1878 to about 1918, ranging about the South from his home state to North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Texas. Walker followed the tourist circuit—and the money—painting, as he himself described, “like the machine.” I think about this in paralleling my career with his. We have both traveled in pursuit of those who would buy: the artist as he created the art itself and the art dealer on those same roads a century later. Dressed in fine suit and ascot, Walker produced and sold his wares on street corners in New Orleans and Charleston. In essence, so do I.

Given his own itinerancy and roaming clientele, Walker’s souvenir scenes migrated all over the world, serving—quite literally—as picture postcards. Executed on small brass plates or academy board pieces cut to portable sizes, Walker recorded quintessential, if idealized, scenes of Southern life and lore, delightful keepsakes of their purchasers’ visits. As a result, we have encountered Walkers across this country and abroad. There have been more uncovered in Manchester, England, than any other foreign locale, surely sent there as gifts to that city’s mill owners from the cotton factors of Charleston and New Orleans. Panel paintings have come to us from Mexico, Canada, and as far away as Australia.

Beyond the bounds of location, Walker was adept in the marketing of his work, ensuring its dispersal far and wide. His savvy and the sheer number of works that he produced have fed the market and the collecting base. Walker’s cabin scenes and single figures, almost always oil on board, have become something of an entree for many important collections of Southern art. These pieces are numerous and they are attainable. Moreover, they have proven to be wise investments, appreciating in value as the artist’s star and stock have steadily risen. Why not begin there? These very qualities—prolificacy, redundancy, and accessibility—have offered opportunity to collectors and dealers alike. And, regrettably, to fakers, as well. Novice collectors are often naïve, seduced by a deal too good to be true; sometimes, seasoned collectors are, too.

The cast of players assembled in Judge Dennis Shedd’s federal courtroom in Columbia, South Carolina, in April of 2000. John Fowler, my New Orleans friend and author of the forthcoming catalogue raissoné on Walker was there, as was New York dealer and my frequent partner Gerry Wunderlich. We were joined by various other dealers, collectors, experts—and criminals. The matter before us was a group of illegitimate Walker paintings. I was there not only as a Walker authority, but also as an intended dupe. I had been offered several of the small panels in question, examples I had rejected out of hand, certain they were fakes. The man who had brought the paintings to me was in the chamber, too, indicted on two charges of fraud involving selling counterfeit art. Someone in Columbia had written a big check for a pretend painting, making the purchase from this same character. That collector had then asked me to consider it for inclusion in our 1995 book. I declined the offer and shared with him my suspicions about his picture. He, in turn, called the FBI—as had I—and was subsequently enlisted by the feds in a sting which produced yet another fake and brought the scoundrel to trial.

Our blue-collar jury was a matter of concern to the federal prosecutor. She was sure that her courtroom opposition would characterize the skirmish as an elitist brouhaha and convince the seated twelve that the entire case was much ado about nothing. The first witness called, a Mississippi dentist, was victim of both the counterfeiter and his own greed. He had underbid a Walker painting, legitimate at that, at auction, an attempt noted by the defendant. The huckster then offered the dentist a bargain: a better price on a better Walker that he just happened to own. Lo and behold, he even agreed to accept less for this example than the one that got away! There is no value in fakes but experience, and now the dentist was forced to admit that his own cunning in the deal left him with his painting seized and slapped with an evidence label—and no recourse for the return of his money.

Though he did not attend the trial, the influence of Christopher Forbes was present during the proceedings. The son of Malcolm Forbes, Kip, as he is known, shares his father’s driving passion to collect. He had admired our painting, Walker’s Blackberry Winter (now in Jack Warner’s Westervelt-Warner Museum), in my booth at the Mint Museum Antiques Show several years before. Kip was the featured speaker at that event and gave real consideration to the picture, but, in consultation with his brothers, decided not to pay the price. I was in New York the following January when Wunderlich & Company hosted a month-long exhibition of paintings by Walker, mounted to coincide with the publication of our book. As Gerry and I hung the show, two women came in and looked with care, examining in detail the paintings before them. It struck us as odd that they would not identify themselves. The next morning, Kip invited Gerry and me to visit him at the Forbes Building. There, we were warmly greeted and given a tour of the family’s impressive holdings, before being whisked off to see the collection’s latest acquisition, now in conservation. When the door at the conservation lab opened, we were greeted by the two furtive women who had studied my paintings the day before. Kip, as it turns out, had just purchased a painting from Doyle Auction Galleries of the docks in New Orleans, ambitious in its depiction of bales of cotton being loaded onto ships billowing black smoke. The painting was signed in the artist’s usual style: WAWalker. But it was not Walker’s hand. The conservators maintained that everything about the piece was period—from the canvas to the pigment to the stretcher. How could it not be by Walker? It was not, I knew—in my gut, in my head—but could not refute them on particulars. When Kip had first called me some weeks before with the news of his purchase and shared an image, I had questioned the painting’s veracity, much to his discomfort. Now it was about to all play out.

It had become a habit for John Fowler and me to take a moment at the end of the day every other month or so to talk about the Walker paintings we had seen—general conversation about what was out there and who had interest. Over the last few years, we had each come across the occasional painting with unusual coloration and other abnormalities. Though we felt them odd, we did not utter the word “fake” between us. We noted, but didn’t knock. There were too many of them now, however, and the Forbes picture—so elaborate and potentially significant—was a call to action. Kip, Gerry, and I agreed to engage James Martin of Orion Analytical in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to analyze the Forbes painting and several other suspects against one that I was able to document as having been in a single-family collection since the 1920s. Using the best tools available, Martin was able to prove that the painter of these pastiches had sanded down period canvases and panels, then used these period and properly aged supports as the foundations on which to build new pigment, incorporating all of the appurtenances of the real McCoy. Unfortunately, Jamie never had the opportunity to testify. As a scientist, his esoteric methodology played into the fears of the prosecutor.

The shacks that so prominently populate Walker’s paintings have, for the most part, vanished from the modern South. They have rotted or burned or been pulled down by the kudzu that made them caricatures of themselves. A quick calculation tells me that I have easily logged close to two hundred thousand miles on South Carolina Highway 56—between Spartanburg and Clinton, just thirty-four miles distance—in the fifty-four years I have traveled it. I have noted the decay of the one- and two-room shacks that lined that road over time and can take you today to foundations level with the ground and stands of surviving chimneys. Sometimes, however, the chimneys were the first to go, a truth that played a pivotal role in the counterfeit trial.

Traditionally built of resinous pine branches and daubed with red mud or clay, these rustic chimneys were purposefully constructed to shift away from the house as they gained height. This angle was then balanced up high by a large pole, a support designed to keep the vent from falling over—unless, of course, there were a fire. In that instance, even the children knew to run out and kick the stick, dislodging the chimney’s support. As a result, the chimney would, ideally, fall away from the cabin itself, sparing the family’s home.

This jury of truck drivers, construction workers, and others who seemed to be at home in the Southland knew this, too. Over lunch, I suggested to the prosecutor that she ask me why the chimney in the painting I claimed was a fake stood tall and straight, while the chimneys depicted in the genuine articles did not. In sworn testimony, I told the tale of those shells of shacks—peering at the jury and speaking with emphasis—that all of us had seen in the South we remembered from earlier years. The leaning chimney was the work of our Uncle Willy, the other painted a century later by someone from New York. The judge looked at me, the prosecutor, and then the jury. He then called the defense attorney forward and told him he had lost the jury and that the defendant, one Charles Heller, might now want to plead to the charge of Withholding Evidence on a Crime if the fraud charges were dropped. Mr. Heller served his time in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Doyle graciously returned Mr. Forbes’ money. And John Fowler and I have since had numerous opportunities extended by the auction houses to vet paintings attributed to Walker before money was exchanged.

William Aiken Walker (1839-1921)
Blackberry Winter (1884)
Oil on canvas
30 x 50 inches
Signature Details: Lower Left
Owner: Private Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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