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Friday, July 28, 2000

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Marty McClain of McClain Auctions displays
some of the Dali prints that have been stamped as
counterfeit by the Postal Inspection Service.

Works tainted
by Center Art case
headed to auction

Hundreds of pieces seized
in the infamous international case
will go on the block tomorrow

By Tim Ruel


Standing inside Center Art Galleries-Hawaii at the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, Carole Edwards found herself surrounded by the media, their camera lights shining from the Waikiki sidewalk through the gallery's glass walls.

"I felt like I was in a fishbowl," Edwards recalled yesterday, nearly six years after she and other U.S. postal inspectors seized the assets of Center Art Galleries-Hawaii Inc.

Tomorrow, thousands of pieces of the seized works -- the last of those involved in an infamous international fraud case -- will be auctioned to the public at McClain Auctions on Halekauwila Street.

Edwards, who has been on this assignment for nine years, is glad it's almost over. "This case has been half of my career," she said.

In 1985, the Star-Bulletin's Lee Catterall began reporting about complaints by art experts and consumers about the gallery's sales of reproduced work, which included that of the late Salvador Dali.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
The Dali print, "The Three Graces of Hawaii."

Five years later, a federal judge convicted Center Art Gallery-Hawaii executives William D. Mett and Marvin L. Wiseman on charges of mail fraud. The two also were found guilty on separate charges of embezzlement, related to the company's pension fund, during their second trial, and were sentenced last month to five years and three months in prison. Both remain free on bond, pending another appeal.

The now-defunct Center Art Galleries has maintained that the art is real, not fake, Edwards said. However, 70,000 pieces in a New York case already have been destroyed.

U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor ended the Hawaii saga in May by ordering the U.S. government to sell the art, Edwards said.

The works, each bearing a government stamp that marks them as fakes, will open for viewing today at McClain Auctions, then hit the block tomorrow at 10 a.m. Pieces include moldings as well as paintings. There will be no minimum bid price.

Proceeds will help pay Center Art Galleries' million-dollar, court-imposed fine, according to Gillmor's order. The Postal Inspection Service will destroy anything not sold.

Will the taint of fraud discourage buyers, or will the government's counterfeit stamp actually give the pieces a shine of novelty?

"Who knows? We don't," said Martin McClain of McClain Auctions. "All we know is the court says to sell it."

Jay Jensen, chief curator of the Contemporary Museum in Makiki Heights, said once the pieces sell, other opportunists could try to market fake prints as real years from now when the scandal blows over.

"It's a little bit like weeds: These things never go away," Jensen said. "I just hope the general public would understand these things don't have any art value."

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