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Behind the picture

June 01, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — What "Blonde Waiting" is waiting for today is to learn who will own her.

She has been making time most recently with art dealer Larry Gagosian, who keeps her in his uptown Manhattan gallery. But the federal government wants her too -- it's trying to seize her as part of a civil suit seeking $26.5 million from Gagosian and three others, alleging they owe that much because of taxes they never paid on profits from art sales using a corporate alter ego.

That's how "Blonde Waiting" -- a Pop art fantasy woman painted four decades ago by Roy Lichtenstein -- became caught up in the latest scandal to taint top-dollar art dealing, a trade that has always combined a genteel image with a dash of roguery: tuxedoed auctioneers and sales toasted with chardonnay on one hand, and the occasional forgery, insurance scam or price-fixing at Christie's and Sotheby's on the other.

The newest scandals have left a particularly bitter aftertaste, linking the business side of beautiful objects with the sort of practices that have demonized leading names on Wall Street. Parallel art-and-finance scandals have even enmeshed some of the same highfliers. Tyco's L. Dennis Kozlowski and ImClone's Samuel Waksal can count among their alleged financial shenanigans -- or in Waksal's case, admitted crimes -- crude schemes to avoid sales taxes while accumulating showpiece art collections.

"The whole thing is pretty outrageous," said James M. Kindler, the chief assistant in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, which is not done examining the sales records of a string of prominent galleries. "You just get the impression people think they don't have to pay tax in this particular area."


If love of the deal seems to have overwhelmed the love of art in such episodes, that wasn't the case back when "Blonde Waiting" found its first home, according to its initial owner, Richard L. Weisman. "It definitely was not the art of the deal," he says.

Weisman was 22 when he visited Los Angeles' Ferus Gallery in 1964 and was smitten by Lichtenstein's painting of a Hollywood-image beauty reclining by a bedpost, peering past a windup alarm clock.

Although he had bought only one painting before, Weisman was not a naive art consumer. His uncle was Norton Simon and his parents -- Marcia and Frederick Weisman -- were on their way to becoming noted collectors as well, so he understood how ego and greed often came into play as much as admiration of the object itself.

But his experience with "Blonde Waiting" accelerated his education in that side of art. The first time he saw it, the price was $1,500. When he returned to the gallery the next day, eager to buy, the dealer had upped the price to $1,750.

"I never expected it to be worth a lot," Weisman recalled recently. "It was considered by a lot of people to be a large cartoon."

Yet during the quarter century he owned the "cartoon," its value kept rising. Someone would tell him it was worth $45,000, then $100,000 until "Blonde Waiting" was "an asset" among others he collected -- by Rothko and Warhol and De Kooning -- and the insurance premiums alone made it expensive to hang in the apartment he kept by the United Nations after he became a money manager in New York.

"Blonde Waiting" was valued at $3.8 million by September 1989, when Weisman went to dinner in Manhattan with Gagosian, the Los Angeles-born dealer who got his start in Westwood in the early '70s by buying schlock posters and prints for $2 and $3, putting them in aluminum frames and selling them to UCLA students for $15. Gagosian later earned the nickname "Go-Go" and a reputation for being able to talk collectors into parting with works they hadn't realized they wanted to sell. "I'm aggressive," he once told The Times. "It's just my nature."

Weisman can imagine how Gagosian might have viewed him. "Listen," he says, "stockbrokers try to sell you stocks. People who own music stores try to sell you guitars. Maybe all along he was thinking that with me: 'I had Richard in my sights, and I was working on him.' Maybe he thought I might buy or sell one painting."

Weisman had something bigger in mind, actually: selling almost his entire collection. With art prices peaking, he wanted to eliminate the cost of maintaining them and guarantee himself a nest egg for life. Although he might earn more by putting his works up for auction, his lesser pieces might not sell that way. A dealer such as Gagosian would take them all, if that was the only way to get the business. "I knew I wasn't going to get the best deal from Larry," Weisman said. "But he does what he's supposed to." Weisman said that when he announced his plan at a Japanese restaurant, Gagosian "almost fell out of the chair."

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