Detroit-area photography dealer pleads guilty to $1.5m art fraud scheme

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A former Detroit-area gallery owner pleaded guilty to conning collectors out of more than $1.5m worth of art last week, charges that could land her up to 20 years in prison.

Wendy Halstead Beard pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, the Department of Justice said on Thursday (13 July). Beard is the former owner of the Wendy Halsted Gallery located in Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Beard acknowledged defrauding more than 10 victims over nearly three years, including one victim who was vulnerable because of their advanced age, officials said. Beard’s sentencing has been scheduled for December.

From approximately March 2019 until October 2022, Beard defrauded her clients by selling photographic prints she had received on consignment without notifying the owners and pocketed the profits, according to the DoJ. Beard used a variety of excuses to explain to clients why their work could not be returned, including telling them she had recently woken from a coma or had received a double-lung transplant. Other times, Beard said clients’ photographs were not attracting buyer interest, even in cases in which the work had already been sold. Beard also created fake email addresses for employees who did not exist to support her fraud.

Beard’s alleged victims include Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist J. Ross Baughman, who told The New York Times earlier this year that the former gallerist conned him out of 20 prints she valued at $40,0000.

“She was willing to take advantage of me,” Baughman told the Times, saying Beard “had taken my life’s work—all of these very fun, sentimental personal artefacts”.

Beard is the daughter of well-known Detroit photography dealer Tom Halsted, who was a founding member of Association of International Photography Art Dealers (Aipad) and was elected the group’s second president. Halsted died in 2018, and Baughman told the Times he began working with Beard after he initially tried to reach out to her father after his death.

Another alleged victim was an 89-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease who consigned five photographs for Beard to sell, including a signed print by famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation complaint. When the man’s relatives requested return of the works, Beard instead gave them a reproduction print that appeared to have been purchased from the gift shop of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, California, the complaint stated.

More and more alleged cases of art dealers defrauding collectors and artists have come to light in recent years. High-profile Manhattan art advisor Lisa Schiff indicated in recent legal documents that she will liquidate her firm to pay creditors after facing lawsuits claiming she defrauded collectors out of millions of dollars. Palm Beach art dealer Daniel Elie Bouaziz was sentenced to more than two years in prison last month after pleading guilty to selling counterfeit works he attributed to blue-chip artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Roy Lichtenstein. Last year, art dealer Inigo Philbrick was sentenced to seven years in prison after he pleaded guilty to federal wire charges linked to defrauding collectors, investors and lenders out of $86m.

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