As $1.6 million in rare photos vanished, the excuses piled up

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, April 13, 2024

As $1.6 million in rare photos vanished, the excuses piled up
The home of Wendy Halsted Beard, where she operated the Wendy Halsted Gallery from in recent years, in Franklin, Mich., Jan. 30, 2023. The FBI alleges that Beard repeatedly obtained fine art photographs from collectors with the intent to defraud them. (Brittany Greeson for The New York Times)

by Ryan Patrick Hooper

NEW YORK, NY.- As J. Ross Baughman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, prepared to downsize into a new apartment in 2020, he realized he would not have the wall space for his entire collection, which included prints by marquee names like Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon.

Hoping to sell about one-third of it, he reached out to Thomas Halsted, a Detroit-area gallery owner who in the early 1970s had helped Baughman acquire his first artwork, an Arbus print of a human pincushion.

Halsted’s daughter, Wendy Halsted Beard, broke the news that he had died. But she had inherited the business, and within a month, Baughman agreed to consign the Arbus and 19 other prints, many of them signed by the photographers.

Their contract gave Beard one year to sell the photos, which she valued at $40,000. But nearly three years later, Baughman has not received a cent — or any of his cherished images back.

Baughman, 69, is one of several victims in what the FBI has called a criminal scheme by Beard to swindle older collectors out of $1.6 million worth of fine art photos.

Beard allegedly went to great lengths to deceive her clients, according to court documents, creating email addresses for nonexistent employees, making up a double lung transplant and other medical emergencies, and swapping one client’s signed photograph with a $405.26 purchase from the Ansel Adams Gallery’s gift shop.

Baughman said he grew suspicious when Beard became evasive about the status of his prints. Then emails to her started to bounce back.

“She was willing to take advantage of me,” Baughman said. He said it felt like “she had taken my life’s work — all of these very fun, sentimental personal artifacts.”

Beard, who is in her late 50s, has been charged with wire fraud and bank fraud. Her lawyer, Steve Fishman, said that “this is a complicated case which does not lend itself to any commentary right now.”

In a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last year, the FBI alleges that Beard repeatedly obtained fine art photographs on consignment with the intent of defrauding collectors.

When the images did sell, Beard kept all the profits rather than just her commission, the complaint said. When they failed to sell, she did not return the photographs as promised, instead keeping them in her Franklin, Michigan, home or abandoning them in a Florida gallery.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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