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Reclusive French Artist at Center of Gallery Furor, FBI Probe Steps Forward

August 06, 1988|ROBERT A. JONES | Times Staff Writer

CARMEL — A stooped, grandfatherly man walked slowly into a packed press conference here Friday and announced that he was the French painter Paul Valere, the artist whose very existence has been questioned by the FBI.

"I am here," the elderly artist said, summing up what he and his gallery hope will be the last chapter in a remarkable tale that started as a simple art theft and blossomed into accusations of international art fraud.

Professing that he was kept unaware of the controversy swirling around him by his French business agent, Valere said he had agreed to come to the United States after gallery officials tracked him down in France.

"I came to prove my existence. I am Paul Valere," he said, and added that he would cooperate with any ongoing police investigation.

FBI Investigation

That investigation began early this year when FBI agents arrived at Simic Galleries in downtown Carmel to check out the disappearance of several paintings from the gallery. In court documents, the FBI agents said they became intrigued by another possible crime: The gallery employees treated the works of one particular artist as an "inside joke," they said, and one assistant manager allegedly went so far as to claim that the paintings were done by teams rather than one person.

The artist in question was Paul Valere, whose paintings of French chateaux in rural France have become one of the gallery's biggest sellers. Valere's works, done in a style reminiscent of 19th-Century impressionists, sell for prices ranging from $2,000 to $18,500.

The owner of Simic Galleries, Mario Simic, and the involved employees all contend that the claimed conversations never took place. The FBI was further confused, they say, by the fact that the name Paul Valere is actually a pseudonym and therefore does not turn up in any standard biographical works.

Long-Simmering Feud

But the ensuing investigation has produced a furor here. A long-simmering feud between large, commercial galleries such as Simic and some local artists broke into the open, with the artists charging that galleries such as Simic use a variety of deceptive sales practices.

Simic Galleries officials say they were handicapped in making their own defense because they did not know themselves just where Valere could be found. That information, they say, was closely guarded by Valere's agent in France, Robert Fruchter. In previous interviews, Fruchter had said that his refusal to reveal Valere's whereabouts was based on fears that other commercial agents would seek to exploit the artist.

Locating Valere was made more difficult, gallery officials said, because they did not know the artist's real name.

On Friday, the gallery officials described a monthslong covert operation that finally resulted in their finding the artist. Locating his last name by going through records of old art catalogues, they began calling every person in France with that name. They located an artist with that last name once in a town near the Mediterranean, but he turned out to be the wrong man.

Unlisted Phone Number

Eventually a telephone operator who sympathized with their cause told them that the man they were searching for had an unlisted number. She was willing to tell them, however, the name of the town where he lived. After a day of knocking on doors and showing townspeople a picture of the artist, the Simic representatives located Valere at his home.

"That was a great moment," said Edward King, vice president of Simic Galleries.

Valere revealed at the press conference that he has since terminated his agreement with the French agent, Fruchter, saying he believes that the agent misled him about the nature of the controversy.

It is not known whether the appearance of Valere--he refused to reveal his true name on Friday for what he said were personal reasons--will lead the FBI to drop its investigation. Contacted by telephone, FBI Agent Richard Lack said the investigation was still in progress. He noted that the agency likely would interview the artist during his three-week stay here.

Test by French Officials

In addition to the appearance of Valere, Simic is bolstering its case with the records of a painting test that was conducted by French authorities in Valere's studio. In that test, according to records supplied by Simic Galleries, Valere successfully completed a painting similar to those hanging on the gallery's walls over a three-day period.

The FBI, Lack said, is still considering a painting test of its own.

One of the findings that helped prompt the investigation was the discovery that up to 90 paintings a year appear under Valere's name, a rate that would push the talents of any artist.

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