Is this a Picasso?

My mother passed away five years ago. She was an avid art collector most of her life. Among the items we found stashed away in storage was the painting above. As you’ll see from the Bill of Sale below it is “A Painting (Gouache) by Picasso” entitled “Mother Figure.”

I hadn’t seen the painting for a while, but it brought back memories. First off, I’m 99.9% sure it isn’t a Picasso. How do I know?

  1. My mother told me it was probably fake fairly soon after she purchased it (in 1974). An art expert she knew came by the house to have a look and identified it as a forgery;
  2. Two other members of my family have confirmed the above;
  3. It wasn’t purchased from a gallery, just a guy named Frank Chew (if that was real name);
  4. There’s no signature on it, no big “P” Picasso. By this time in his life, Picasso could make a couple marks on a napkin, add his signature and pay for his dinner. It’s unlikely this would be unsigned;
  5. It’s god awful. Picasso may have done paintings meant to look ugly, but they would still demonstrate aesthetic and compositional skill. This thing’s just straight up ugly and poorly done.

As a crime fiction writer, I’m fascinated by frauds and scams. We’re all susceptible to them in one way or another (if you think you aren’t, think again). My mother was a pretty sensible person overall, but she fell for this guy’s scam. I have a vague memory of seeing her, Mr. Chew, and one other person looking over several paintings in the living room of our house. I don’t remember any specifics of the conversation, but I have my thoughts on how the con went down.

  • The other person in the room was someone my mother knew. That person brought Mr. Chew over to the house. Was this person in on the con? Possibly, but I think it more likely they’d fallen for the con themselves, that Chew used them to contact local art collectors, helping him look legitimate. Perhaps he offered them a cut of the sales if they introduced him to buyers.
  • The story. There had to be a story to explain how Mr. Chew came by the paintings, how they were created and why they were left unsigned. A good story is crucial to any good grift. It has to be believable enough to overcome the mark’s initial skepticism. I don’t know what the story was, but I expect it was well written and rehearsed.
  • The deal. I’m sure this painting was offered at a substantial discount to whatever a Picasso of this type might have been going for at the time. It’s hard for any of us to resist a good deal. There’s usually a story attached to the discount as well, an explanation as to why the seller is making them available cheap (perhaps because there was no signature?). A good con anticipates questions and objections. It’s interesting that no price is listed on the bill of sale.
  • Appeal to authority. In this case the seller had a notary confirm he really was who he said he was (see document below). I’m not sure what the requirements were for a notary to confirm someone’s identity back then, but an experienced con artist would have fake identity documents at the ready. If the police started looking for Mr. Chew, they’d find he didn’t exist (or that the real Chew’s identity was stolen).

There’s also the careful wrapping and packaging of the piece that makes it seem more legitimate and precious. Here’s the portfolio case with the title on a tag in front.

This all happened in 1974 and, as far as I know, Mr. Chew was never apprehended. I don’t know if there were other San Diego art collectors who fell for his scam. I’ve asked some folks who were around at the time but, other than two of my siblings, no one remembers anything about it. It’s possible my mother never even reported this to the police.

At any rate, I plan to keep this painting around for a while. I may use some version of this story in one of my novels or short stories. One question I’m still interested in is who painted this? Was it Mr. Chew or a silent partner with some artistic skill?

7 Comments on “Is this a Picasso?

  1. Corey, this is very interesting in deed. I remember being at your home in about 1967. You and Bruce were just little ones. I specifically remember a print in one of your bedrooms that was identified as a Picasso. I was duly impressed at the sophistication of my California relatives. That was about the same time your dad was driving that Italian sports car. To me…it’s always been very real and authentic!
    Hope you and Maria are doing well.
    Hopefully, talk soon.
    Janet

  2. Really interesting story. I think it happens more often than you imagine, especially now on eBay and other internet platforms. Someone tried to sell us a fake Christo drawing once. That’s why we usually buy our artwork directly from the artists. That way they also receive the whole price.
    You should turn this into a short story.

  3. Could definitely be a short story. Also thinking I could work it into the sequels to my La Jolla novel.

  4. Hope you turn up some leads! I’m wondering who the other person was at the sales meeting…do you remember any clues, male? female? young? Old? Also, I’m reading the last name as CHEW. Look at the first line, “The undersigned…” looks like Frank Chew, not Chen to me. And the notary clearly identifies him as CHEW (look at her clearly different N on the first name) !

  5. I’m thinking it was a woman, but I’m really not sure. I looked more closely and you’re right about the name.It’s Frank Chew from now on.

  6. What a story!

    Did your family know the Carnohans? They lived on Draper, I believe. Their daughter, Karel, and I were friends. Mr. Carnohan was a painter and was friends with Picasso. He had a cool furniture store in Hillcrest.

  7. I don’t remember them, but they sound like people my parents would probably know.

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