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Tangled Web Of Art Deals To Be Unwound At Hearing Of Dealer

April 15, 1986|DAVID CROOK | Times Staff Writer

A rare, revealing look at how the other half spends--and sometimes loses--its money in the world of contemporary art trading is expected to emerge next week in a Los Angeles criminal courtroom.

Doing business in the art trade can be so loose that buyers may seal deals for artworks worth far more than the average person's home with little more than a handshake. They may never set eyes on paintings or sculpture for which they have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars. They may shrug off losses of tens of thousands of dollars.

And they may ignore or hush up reports of rip-offs that would quickly send less wealthy consumers complaining to authorities.

It is a business world that appears ripe for abuse and, until recently, has been good to Douglas James Chrismas, the 42-year-old owner of the chic Flow Ace Gallery on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood.

Long regarded in art circles as one of the country's most important dealers in contemporary American art, Chrismas is scheduled for a preliminary hearing next Tuesday on seven felony charges that he stole more than $1 million worth of artworks by some of this era's master artists--Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and others.

While these are the most serious accusations ever made against Chrismas, they are not the only ones.

For nearly a decade, he has faced more than a score of civil lawsuits in state and federal courts over his questionable business dealings. He has lost suits charging that he has failed to pay for property acquired or leased over the years in the trendiest parts of Venice; that he has not paid artists for artworks sold by his galleries, and that he has not delivered artworks bought by collectors.

In the suits, he has been accused of using stalling and delaying tactics that have thwarted creditors' repeated efforts to recover their losses. Delays in one case may have led a frustrated elderly woman to kill herself.

"There are a great many number of people (who) had to struggle with him (Chrismas) over the years," noted New York art dealer Leo Castelli said in an interview. "He got into so much trouble with so many people that he got lost. He couldn't cope with it anymore."

Chrismas declined to be interviewed but willingly referred questions to his defense attorney, Richard G. Hirsch.

Chrismas and his companies have filed three Chapter 11 federal bankruptcies since 1982, effectively barring most of his creditors from collecting the money owed them.

(Firms filing under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy law may continue operating as they reorganize. The firm is protected from creditors, and the filing automatically stays or suspends all civil actions taken by creditors to collect their claims.)

Stymied by one of those bankruptcies, one art collector in January filed a criminal complaint against Chrismas with the Los Angeles Police Department. The dealer was arrested and arraigned in Municipal Court in February. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and was freed on $40,000 bail.

"We were absolutely shocked that other people hadn't gone to the public authorities," said Los Angeles attorney J. Christopher Kennedy. "I think some people have a great deal of embarrassment."

Until Kennedy's client, C. Fredrick Stimpson, a Vancouver, Canada, real estate developer, went forward with his criminal charges, complaints about the art dealer rarely surfaced beyond the art world's own grapevine.

Stimpson said in an interview that he had dealt with Chrismas for more than 15 years.

"You just became rather aware," Stimpson said, "that there were people that he (Chrismas) had offended one way or another.

"I wasn't going to do anything until I thought that maybe there's a public service duty here. . . . Had I lost only one piece and it had cost only $20,000, I might have written it off as experience."

Even after Chrismas' arrest, few clients or customers have been willing to discuss their ties to him.

"Almost anybody who is a notable art collector in this town has had dealings with Doug Chrismas," said Ken Wilson, assistant to television producer and art collector Douglas Cramer.

Wilson said he bought a painting and a sculpture from Chrismas last year and, cautiously, acknowledged that "it took some time" and "an unusual amount of effort to close the deal.

"Eventually, it worked out fine," Wilson said. "I don't feel comfortable saying unkind things; it would portray some people in a very bad light."

New York art collectors Jane Ordway and Dexter Guerrieri also eventually received artworks they bought from Chrismas, but only after they went through nearly two years of litigation, a federal trial in Los Angeles and a court order forcing Chrismas to hand over two pieces that they bought from him.

Chrismas may have had no right to sell the New York couple one of the pieces.

Stimpson claims one of the pieces was among seven works by well-known contemporary artists Rauschenberg, Warhol, Donald Judd and Frank Stella that Stimpson, over a six-year period, bought and left in Chrismas' care.

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