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Not a pretty picture

Lured by hopes of riches from a new reproduction process, artists say they were scammed when unauthorized copies flooded the market.

January 18, 2007|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

THEY met in Paris in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. He was a struggling painter with a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village; she was a ballerina who lived in Marin County and danced in San Francisco.

They married and had two daughters. He became successful enough to make a living with brush and easel. They moved to a tiny farm in Petaluma, where she taught ballet and he painted pricey Irish landscapes and Paris street scenes.

His name was John O'Brien, and cancer took him two years ago at age 53.

Her name is Martha O'Brien, and she was left with a mountain of debt in the aftermath of what law enforcement authorities contend was a widespread fraud. She often wakes up wondering how she will keep her home on the crumbs a ballet teacher makes.

In Martha's view, everything probably would have been different if a woman hadn't come to see John six years ago and persuaded him that there was a fortune to be made in selling high-end prints of his work. As Martha put it, the woman practically guaranteed that "everyone would live happily ever after."

The woman was Kristine Eubanks, and she ran a printing business in Los Angeles. According to O'Brien, Eubanks proposed to take advantage of a new technology called giclee (pronounced zhee-CLAY), which reproduces art without the telltale dots of color printing. Originals and copies are difficult to tell apart without close examination.

The term derives from the French verb gicler, which means "to squirt" or "to spray." It's most commonly used to describe a high-resolution digital process employed in the reproduction of fine art.

John O'Brien was enthusiastic. Martha recalled that Eubanks said she would produce and market high-quality limited edition prints of her husband's work, which he would sign, and perhaps bring in six figures a year. In the spring of 2000, he began shipping his work south to Eubanks' print shop.

For a while, it all seemed to be working. The checks arrived on a regular basis, a much-needed steady income.

Then, less than two years later, John began to think that something was amiss. He thought he had signed and numbered each of the prints produced by Eubanks, but nagging little incidents began to make him wonder, Martha said.

A friend called to say he'd seen one of O'Brien's works for sale on EBay, the huge auction website. But it wasn't one he'd signed, numbered and embellished, Martha said. To O'Brien's dismay, cheap knockoffs were finding their way into the art market. Then, according to Martha, he heard that his prints were being sold on Princess Cruise Lines.

In Martha's retelling, John was quickly losing control of his work. He decided to buy a giclee printing press and have a personal hand in everything, right down to the marketing of his paintings and prints. Essentially, O'Brien was getting rid of Eubanks and starting over.

"Then he started getting sick," Martha said.

What followed was two years of treatment for melanoma -- the chemotherapy, the crashing headaches, the withering health. In October 2004, John died at his Petaluma home. He left behind what should have been a source of income for years to come: the ability to reproduce more than 100 original oil paintings.

But as Martha would discover, she didn't have much. More unauthorized copies surfaced, she said, and sales languished because the market was flooded with reproductions of her husband's work. As time went on, it became clear to her that there would be little, if any, money coming in from the art left behind.

"John's worst nightmare has happened," she said. "We're completely broke."

Then, four months ago, the phone rang. Bob Lauson was on the other end.

Lauson is a lawyer whose office is in the same Manhattan Beach complex where the TV show "CSI: Miami" is filmed. He asked Martha if she knew Kristine Eubanks. And he asked if she knew that hundreds of John O'Brien giclees were being sold on Princess Cruise Lines.

The answer to the first question was yes; the answer to the second was no.

He told Martha that he had been retained by another artist who had done business with Eubanks. There was, he alleged, a larger criminal game afoot.

CHARLENE Mitchell was the one who had called Lauson. She lives with her retired husband, Pat, in a well-kept, unpretentious house just outside the mountain town of Lake Arrowhead. On days when she paints, Mitchell sets up her easel in the sunny living room.

She specializes in animals, gardens and beach settings. She is particularly noted for her horse-racing art, which takes longer to produce because of the complexity of depicting so many animals in motion.

For years, she simply sold what she painted in galleries or to people who commissioned her work. But she, like O'Brien and so many other artists, was realizing that there was money to be made in the giclee technique. In 2003, while looking through a copy of Art Business News -- a popular trade publication -- Mitchell came across an ad for giclee copying in Van Nuys. One of the owners of the print shop was Eubanks.

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