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?

Song – Home

Vocals by Bruce Fayman. Guitar by Fritz Fayman. The rest you can blame on me.

I’ve started spending more time on my musical pursuits lately—brushing up on my keyboard skills, learning modern recording technology and writing songs. The above is the first song I’ve written and produced in quite a long time. It’s a somber and reflective piece I started years ago. Feels good to have it finished and out in the world. Have a listen (and/or download for later by clicking the down arrow in upper right).

Character Names

Beginning with the first Rolly Waters novel, Black’s Beach Shuffle, one of the things I tried to do was to give my characters distinctive names. Since my protagonist was a musician, I came up with a system for naming all the characters after musicians or music-related entities. I didn’t want to make the names too obvious (no Miles Davis or Elvis Presley) because that would distract the reader from the story. So I decided to mash up the names—one from column A and one from column B. Here’s how it works:

Recurring Characters:
Rolly Waters. Rolly is short for Roland, a company that makes any number of musical instruments, but are best known for their early drum machines, like the TR-808. Waters is for the seminal Chicago blues man, Muddy Waters.
Bonnie Hammond. Bonnie Raitt and Hammond Organs (or legendary A&R man and record producer, John Hammond)
Max Gemeinhardt. Named for the drummer for Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Max Weinberg. During my thankfully short-lived jazz-flute playing days, I used a Gemeinhardt flute.
Marley Scratch – for two titans of Reggae music, Bob Marley and dub inventor Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Moogus is a bit of a cheat, it’s a play on Moog, for Robert Moog, inventor of Moog synthesizers. In a later book we find out Moogus’ last name is Ludwig, which is a well-known drum manufacturer. But he’s really just Moogus.

I also applied this method to one-time characters.

Black’s Beach Shuffle:
Alesis Amati. Probably the most ornate name I’ve come up with, this one combines two musical instrument makers. Alesis made the first affordable digital reverb rack (I treasured mine). Amati is a violin manufacturer.
King Gibson. Easy one here. B.B. King and Gibson guitars.
Ricky Rogers is for 50s heartthrob Ricky Nelson. And Rogers drums.

Border Field Blues:
Dr. Zildjian Ramoñes – another slight cheat, but rather clever (I think). The name uses the seminal punk band, the Ramones, with a tilde (ñ) added over the n to give it a Spanish flair. The doctor’s first name, Zildjian, is known to all drummers as manufacturer of the world’s finest cymbals.
Alicia, Rolly’s step-mother, is named for Alicia Keys
Tangerine is named for a song on Led Zeppelin III or the jazz standard by Johnny Mercer and Victor Schertzinger. Take your pick.
Burdon for Eric Burdon, lead singer of The Animals (House of the Rising Sun) and the early version of War (Spill that Wine).

Desert City Diva:
Macy Starr comes from a combination of Macy Gray and Ringo, who doesn’t need a last name.
Cool Bob because Bob Dylan is as cool as they come. And he speaks in riddles, just like Cool Bob.
Buddy Meeks is a slight cheat. It combines blues string-bender nonpareil Buddy Guy with innovative English record producer, musician, sound engineer Joe Meek.

Ballast Point Breakdown
Butch Fleetwood combines alt-rock producer Butch Vig (Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth) with drummer Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac.
Janet Withers is a Janet Jackson and Bill Withers mashup.

Special Cases
Anytime a pair of FBI agents show up, they’re named after a famous songwriting team. In Black’s Beach Shuffle, agents Porter and Hayes are named for the great Stax Records songwriting team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes who composed soul classics such as Hold on, I’m Comin’, Soul Man, and When Something is Wrong with My Baby.

For Ballast Point Breakdown, I used a new FBI team named Goffin and King, for the Brill Building husband and wife team Gerry Goffin and Carole King who wrote Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Some Kind of Wonderful, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, and Up on the Roof among others. King, of course, went on to write and perform the gazillion-selling album Tapestry.

Purifoy Desert Museum

We recently stayed in Joshua Tree, CA, and visited the National Park, taking half-day hikes amongst the striking geology and trees for which the park is named. We also did some cultural sight-seeing and went to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum nearby. It’s a fascinating assemblage of found objects and junk transmuted into more than 100 works of sculptural art by Noah Purify, who spent the last 15 years of his artistic life living and working in the area. Below is a small sample of the work he created. It’s well worth your time if you’re ever in the area.

April Shorts

I bookmark news items and magazine articles about real life cops and criminals as inspiration and reference for my novels and short stories. Here’s a few recent pieces I found interesting.

The Font Detectives
Little did I know there’s now a whole world of typography “detectives” who ferret out fakes and forgeries based on close scrutiny of the fonts used in suspect documents. This is a fascinating story of techno-geeky, crime-solving ingenuity.

The Queen of Crime Solving
With imagination and scientific rigor, forensic scientist Angela Gallop has helped to crack many of the UK’s most notorious murder cases. Someone needs to turn this woman’s career into a mystery series right now.

What Happens When You Enter the Witness Protection Program?
An older article, but a useful one for any crime writers who want to understand how the Witness Protection Program works, its history, its successes and failures. For even more details, you may want to pick up the book it’s based on—Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program by Pete Earley.

Dark Pigeons
This Science article on a possible evolutionary advantage of pigeons with dark feathers inspired my science fiction story When Dark Pigeons Rule.