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28 O'Keeffe Paintings in Doubt as Experts Challenge Authenticity

Art: Uncovered two years after the Southwest artist's death, the 'Canyon Suite' watercolor series appears to possibly be the work of a 9-year-old boy.

March 12, 2000|From Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — The land was flat, the sky luminous--and for prairie-born Georgia O'Keeffe, West Texas was inspiration for revolutionary watercolors.

But how many of the paintings were really hers?

Twenty-eight watercolors that surfaced in 1988--two years after O'Keeffe's death--initially were welcomed as originals. But last fall, their authenticity was challenged because the paper used for some of them could not have been obtained in the United States from 1916 to 1918, when O'Keeffe taught art at West Texas State Normal College in Canyon.

The National Gallery of Art excluded the "Canyon Suite" from O'Keeffe's catalogue raisonne, dealer Gerald Peters refunded the $5 million that a Kansas City, Mo., museum paid for them and Peters says those 28 works will never be resold.

Asked their value, he said: "It is zero. They're not going back on the marketplace. It's just not the right thing to do."

Peters said he had 10 to 20 art experts analyze the watercolors before they were credited to O'Keeffe and sold to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. He said he believes the authenticators acted in good faith and just didn't catch the paper anomaly.

He still believes most of the 28 watercolors are O'Keeffe's. He is less certain about how the paintings came to light.

"It appears as though someone added something to the pot," Peters said.

The story of their discovery is well known in West Texas: A former art department chairman, Emilio Caballero, an acclaimed watercolorist, presented a packet of watercolors to his son and daughter-in-law, who thought they might be O'Keeffes and sought to authenticate them. Caballero has been quoted as saying he never opened the package he received from longtime O'Keeffe friend Ted Reid. Caballero's daughter-in-law is Terry Reid Caballero, Reid's granddaughter.

Emilio Caballero did not return messages seeking comment.

David Rindlisbacher, an art professor at West Texas, said Caballero never claimed the paintings were O'Keeffe's. But he finds it odd that Caballero would not have looked inside the packet he received from Reid.

"No one at West Texas knew anything about these paintings," said Rindlisbacher, 50, also a longtime friend of Reid, who died in the 1980s.

Another Reid friend, Steve Mayes, said Reid insisted that despite his friendship with O'Keeffe he had none of her work.

"I never heard he had anything like that," Mayes said of the 28 watercolors. "I find it odd that Ted would tell one story, then act in a different way."

Mayes, who now teaches at Arkansas State University, was art chairman at West Texas from 1977 to 1988.

There are many undisputed O'Keeffe watercolors from Canyon. O'Keeffe herself talked about them in her 1976 book, "Georgia O'Keeffe," and in a PBS interview with New York-based art historian Barbara Rose.

"I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star," she wrote of one series of watercolors called "Evening Star" that she painted at Canyon in 1917.

Born Nov. 15, 1887, in Sun Prairie, Wis., O'Keeffe in 1916 became chairwoman of the art department at West Texas Normal, now Texas A&M's West Texas campus.

In 1988, the brilliance of the newfound watercolors convinced the art world that lost O'Keeffes had materialized, said Peters, "because they're fantastic, they're absolutely compelling."

But in 1993, the National Gallery and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation began collaborating on the O'Keeffe catalog and doubt began to stir. Barbara Buhler Lynes, now curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., was chosen to compile the catalog, investigating more than 2,000 works. The two-volume listing excludes 250 works including the "Canyon Suite," National Gallery spokeswoman Deborah Ziska said.

If O'Keeffe didn't paint them, who did?

That may never be known.

A Santa Fe man, Jacobo "Jackie" Suazo, has asserted copyright claims for at least three watercolors, which he said he did as a boy painting with O'Keeffe. He said he met her when he was 9 1/2 and lived with her.

Suazo, 65, estimated he painted about 100 works, either alone or in collaboration with O'Keeffe. He said he tried to get his paintings from O'Keeffe near the end of her life.

"I tried going over there, but they would never let me in," he said. "I didn't know whether my paintings were even still there or they had thrown them away."

When she died, he received $30,000 from the estate but no paintings.

Last fall, Suazo saw a photograph of a "Canyon Suite" painting in a newspaper and headed for Kansas City, where he told Kemper museum officials some of the watercolors were his.

But Suazo told Associated Press he never met Ted Reid and cannot explain how pictures he painted in the 1940s in Abiquiu, N.M., could get mixed in with paintings that supposedly originated 30 years earlier--before he was born--in Texas.

Earlier this month, the FBI decided against investigating the "Canyon Suite" controversy.

"We are not going to open up a full investigation due to a lack of jurisdiction," supervisory special agent Doug Beldon said. "It looks like the issues will best be dealt with in a civil setting."

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