Theresa Franks: One Woman’s Quest to Control the Art World

by “Michael Wilson”

October 3, 2011

You’re an artist and you want your portfolio neatly cataloged. What do you do? You call Theresa Franks, that’s what you do. You’re an art collector and you need to protect your valuables from fraud, and establish their provenance and authenticity? No problem. Just call Theresa Franks.

Franks is the founder of Phoenix based, fineartregistry.com, or “FAR”, an on-line art gallery that offers a patented tagging system which helps artists and collectors organize their inventory and, according to Franks, ensure its authenticity. The site’s trademarked moniker: “Helping Bring Order to the World of Art”.

The website, which operates under Franks’ umbrella company, That’s Life Publishing, Inc., is a vast maze of articles, forums and virtual art galleries which take you deep into the art world, or at least the art world according to Franks.

A large portion of the site is dedicated to its gallery, where sellers and buyers peruse through an assortment of artworks listed for sale. While the site offers mostly contemporary and decorative arts by relatively unknown artists, there’s also works for sale by famous artists such as Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, according to the website, complete with Franks’ patented registry tags and, in some cases, a downloadable certificate of authenticity. Sellers and buyers must first register with FAR in order to correspond with each other. FAR accepts no commission from the sales.

The tagging system has piqued the interest the world over. “We’re an international database,” Franks said. “We just made a deal with the Russians. They didn’t have the technology, so we represent them here.”

One major collector I spoke with said he finds the tagging system very interesting. “I would consider using it,” he said. But he cautioned, “only if the company’s integrity is intact.”

FAR names several partners including Artletics, a vintage sports artwork dealer; Masterpiece, a company that offers handmade canvases pre-equipped with FAR’s identification tags; Neglia Services, a jewelry replacement and evaluation service; and CLE 123, Inc., a legal education service company that offers on-line courses in Advocacy, Ethics, and Conflict-of-Interest studies.

FAR’s articles range in topic from auction results to tips and strategies for collectors. Several content-generated articles are listed from other websites such as artprice.com, a members-only database of auction results. All make for a dizzying display to whatever suits your artistic fancy. “You can kind of get lost in all the articles,” laughs Franks, who pens most of them herself. In fact, when I called to interview her, she was “madly working” on yet another one.

Aside from being the site’s web administrator, Franks devotes much of her time investigating “art crime” cases, which are featured on her long list of advocacy and investigative-related articles on the FAR site. Other writers featured on the site include Noah Charney of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) and John Daab, a fraud examiner. “We work closely with federal law enforcement,” Franks said. “We work to deter fraud.”

Franks said she’s helping the FBI investigate a case involving famed cruise ship auction outfit, Park West Galleries, Inc., based in Michigan. Franks was referring to several class-action lawsuits against the gallery stemming from allegations the company sold fake prints by artist Salvador Dali.

The FAR website has become a cornucopia of information for the Park West case, where numerous articles appear, penned by Franks, as well as a litany of homemade amateur YouTube videos featuring Franks ranting about the company’s alleged misgivings.

The rants have been the subject of ire for Park West, who launched four defamation lawsuits against her, each for $46-Million. They were all dismissed. And despite ongoing litigation with Park West in U.S. District Court in Michigan, she spoke freely, without worry of consequence. “Park West is currently being investigated,”Franks said. But she admitted, “no indictments yet.”

In one video, dated, August 14, 2010, Franks even takes a shot at U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence P. Zatkoff, for vacating a jury’s verdict that awarded her $500,000 for various copyright infringement counterclaims against Park West. Zatkoff ordered a new trial scheduled for November, 2011. In the video, Franks lambastes Judge Zatkoff for being “biased from the beginning”. She boldly vows to investigate him, suggesting a “special relationship” exists between Judge Zatkoff and Park West Gallery’s lawyer, Rodger Young

Her sharp tongue has garnered Franks some unwanted attention. During the trial, Franks and her attorneys were admonished for misconduct, and Judge Zatkoff threatened a directed verdict.

Franks also took creative pot shots at the trial, making abstract ink drawings and giving them titles such as “Strangled Justice”, “Jury Deliberation”, and “Wretched”. They are offered for sale on the FAR site, complete with her trademarked tags.

Another target of Franks has been art restorer and forensic expert Peter Paul Biro of Montreal, Canada. Biro examined a fingerprint on a purported Jackson Pollock painting, found at a thrift shop by retired trucker, Ms. Teri Horton. The fingerprint on the back of the canvas was first checked out by a San Bernardino, California police chief. Then, years later, Horton hired Biro to analyze the fingerprint. One of the fingerprints matched that of one found on a blue paint can in the Pollock studio in East Hampton, New York. The discovery was chronicled in a 2006 film documentary, “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?”

Then, in a July 12, 2010 article in the New Yorker, reporter David Grann painted Biro as a forger and a criminal. For that, Franks credits herself. “We worked together for about a year on that story,” she said. “I supplied him with a good number of documents. So, he took that and ran with it.” She continues, “It was our (Fine Art Registry’s) investigation that really was the catalyst for that article.”

Grann’s article set off a bit of a media feeding frenzy, and it wasn’t long before other articles appeared, stating Biro was “a forger” and his family had done “jail time”. Biro launched a defamation lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York against Grann, his eloyer Conde Nast, and Dan Rattiner. He sought $2-Million from each defendant.

Shortly after the suit was filed, many articles which portrayed Biro badly were retracted. Dan’s Papers published a public apology. Business Insider and the Daily Beast issued corrections. According to U.S. federal court records, Biro and defendant Rattiner have reached a settlement arrangement, the details and amount of which are undisclosed. The New Yorker trial is still pending.

But the target of choice for Franks has been cruise line art auctions, particularly in the Park West case, where the debate isn’t as much about whether the company sold fake Dali prints, but whether the experts used to authenticate or negate the pieces are themselves valid.

In the U.S., no set of regulations exist for the art market. Experts are determined more by consensus than credentials. An individual may have an enormous knowledge base of a particular artist, both historically and mechanically, down to the brush strokes. But, in a buyer-beware environment, unless an expert can garner enough respect and confidence from the art world, he will become useless when it comes to authenticating a work of art, even if he is the only one in the world that can tell the difference between the real thing and a master forgery. This holds especially true for works by Dali, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol, artists for which there exists no authentication boards in the United States.

As for Park West, they utilized the professional services of an accredited art appraiser and Dali expert, Bernard Ewell, of Sante Fe, New Mexico. For years, he examined works which were later sold by Park West during their cruise line auctions. However, a pre-existing power-struggle between Ewell and French Dali expert Robert Descharnes was exploited by Franks, and brought into her “ring of fire” on the FAR website. Franks, for some reason or another, has joined ranks with Descharnes, and appears in videos with him and his son Nicolas Descharnes, referring to the two as “world renowned Dali experts.” Franks said she has spent about $2-Million on litigation costs against Park West.

“It’s the old wild west,” Franks said. “That is why we’re here, to bring order.”

Franks is a human sieve: offering information, speculation and pondering with the nonchalance of a gossiper, yet the tenacity of a litigator. “There’s a whole sociological element to art crime and art fraud, in why criminals do what they do,” Franks said.

As she spoke, I was drawn into the tangle of her words, and it soon dawned on me that there’s a particular place where Franks thrivesa grey area in the art world where, in all its chaos and disorder, exists a platform to gain a position of power and control, to authenticate strange truths and fashion them into less strange lies, to bolster a false sense of confidence in those that serve you, and destroy those that oppose, and capitalize on it all in a very creative, venomous way.

In all the seemingly wanton, obsessive rantingFranks spoke for several minutes at a time in between questions,I still found it difficult to put down the phone. But, there were other calls to make. And as a registered member of fineartregistry.com, who had spent months perusing the site and corresponding with other members, I knew something wasn’t quite right. But to an extent I had never imagined.

I called Bernard Ewell, the Dali expert for Park West, and asked him why Franks has targeted him. “I live in rattlesnake country and I know better than to stir up a viper,” he said. But I pressed him for a motive, pointing out that Franks spent an enormous amount of money on the trials in Michigan. He said he was being attacked by Franks to discredit him as an expert witness in the federal case with Park West. “During the Park West trial, the favored theory was that she is being funded by Robert Descharnes, because he was trying to destroy Park West Gallery, so that his son Nicolas can basically corner and control the whole Dali market,” Ewell said.

As a result of Franks’s accusations and “Google-Bomb” campaign, Ewell said he’s lost up to 70% of his business. “People do a Google search of my name and I never hear from them again,” Ewell said. He described Franks as “an anarchistic bomb thrower; she really doesn’t care what innocent lives are ruined and what indiscriminate damage she causes. She’s like a grizzly bear: you just don’t know what she’s going to do. Like a Japanese zero out of a cloud, she was suddenly there.”

What troubles Ewell most, it seems, is that none of the investigators followed Franks’ money trail to find out where her funding is coming from. “Everyone just sort of shrugged and said, ‘so what can you say, the woman is crazy’. There’s no logic to this. She’s got some things going in her head that she’s convinced herself is true.” Ewell, in his despair and frustration still sports an air of toughness, and also a quick-witted, whimsical sense of humor. “She reminds me of the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland who said, ‘Sometimes before breakfast I can believe in as many as thirteen impossible things.’”

I asked if he had one question for Franks, what it would be. After a long pause, he said, “Has she benefited enough from all the damage she’s done? Because the damage has been massive.”

On whether Franks committed libel: “Yes, absolutely,” Ewell said. “Complete lies.”

As for Teri Horton, the owner of the purported Pollock painting that Biro found a fingerprint on, she was very reluctant to speak with me at first, fearing I was a “Theresa Franks shill”. After two requests, she agreed to speak briefly about Franks. She referred to Franks as an “opportunist”, capitalizing on high profile cases such as her painting.

Perhaps a most stunning revelation: Horton disclosed publicly for the first time that it was actually Franks who first contacted Horton several years ago when news broke of the new-found painting. “She wanted to have me put the Pollock painting on her website, Horton said, “because she and her company, Fine Art Registry, were so well known she could assure me of a sale with top dollar.”

But, Horton, street-smart and deep into her 70’s, wouldn’t take the bait. She said it was with “gut instinct” that she immediately did not trust Franks. “I refused,” Horton said. “Then she went on her rampage and lied.” She described Franks as a “diabolical sociopath” who has caused problems for her entire family. “If I had the money, I would sue her for property disparagement. She’s a crazy, evil woman,” Horton said.

If Horton was to sue, she may have to get in line and wait. Maricopa County records show Franks’ legal troubles have been mounting for years. One such case involves an $896,000 loan in which Franks and her husband, Logan Franks, have defaulted. “We couldn’t even find them physically,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Scott L. Potter. “They wouldn’t answer the door.” Potter said the case has “finished out” and the court issued a default judgment against the Franks’ in excess of $680,000. He suggested other claimants are in cue. “Actually, I received a call yesterday from someone looking for Ms. Franks.”

And back to those blue-chip works being offered for sale on Franks’ website: Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Egon Schiele. I wrote an email to a seller, “David Cameron”, who lists numerous works as being “by Jackson Pollock”. Cameron said the works come from a “huge collection”, and are owned by a small group of investors, and that Franks had come to view the paintings prior to listing them for sale on the web.

I contacted the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and told them works were being offered on the FAR website. Alarmed, they referred me to the foundation’s attorney, Ronald D. Spencer. I asked what he thought of the paintings. I could hear him gasp from the other end of the phone as he opened up the email which contained the links to the FAR site. He paused momentarily, then said: “If you were to gather all the Pollock experts in the world, they would all give you the same answer. And it would be an equivocal answer.”

I did in fact contact an expert on Pollock, who wished to remain anonymous. He stated, “It is my opinion that these works are not by the hand of Pollock. They are amateur fakes. Most disturbing is the reference to Clement Greenberg, Peggy Guggenheim and Larry Rivers in the seller’s description. Furthermore, it shall be considered that the entity offering these works, Fine Art Registry, is indeed trafficking in forgeries.”

A seller, “JBPALANK”, (Jason B. Palank), who appears on the FAR site as well as its offshoot, registermyantiques.com, claims on his profile that he is a “Consultant & Modern Impressionist Specialist” for Christie’s Auction House – New York.  Among the works offered for sale by Palank: a painting “by Paul Klee”, and an original pen and ink drawing “by Pablo Picasso” for $50,000, which he said includes an appraisal by someone “highly recommended” by Christie’s. However, when I called Christie’s, a representative in the modern impressionist department said there’s no consultant or specialist named Jason B. Palank. I pressed her to search the company’s database. “Nothing,” she said.

An e-mail to Palank went unanswered. However, a cursory search shows a history of arrests for prescription fraud, DWI, and possession of a controlled substance. According to Florida state public records, he was most recently arrested on August 1, 2010.

Another member, “Breaux05”, was offering an Egon Schiele watercolor. When I contacted the seller, he responded by stating it was not for sale, but would be inclined to sell it if the price was right. We exchanged about five emails. By the third email, I asked if Franks had seen the piece or offered an opinion. He responded by stating Teri Franks is “not an art expert or authenticator!” The seller also copied the email to admin@fineartregistry.com, the same email address for Teri Franks.

I wrote back saying that I was curious as to her opinion because she’s listed as a “Fine Art Expert” and therefore should be garnered to an opinion, and perhaps responsible for the authenticity of the piece being sold on her website. The seller quickly responded by referring me to his lawyer. The site listing Franks as an art expert is cruise ship watchdog group, cruisebruise.com.

Naturally, I had questions. Why would the seller say Franks is not an expert, and at the same time, copy her on the email? Is it possible that the seller is actually Theresa Franks, and copying herself by accident? That would be too strange, I thought, and would require someone of a duplicitous nature. And although I never did hear back from the seller, I tried yet one more.

I inquired with the  seller, “Artsy”, who lists dozens of works for sale on the FAR site. I received a response from someone who signed off as “Lynn”, and with the email URL suffix as skipperwbreeders.com, a website devoted to horse trading.

A closer look into skipperwbreeders.com revealed non-other than Franks as the site’s administrator. A chill ran up my spine. “Lynn”, and “Artsy”, as it turned out, are the same individual. All this time, I had been unwittingly communicating with Franks: an “advocate” for transparency, clouded by aliases, in a maze carved by her own hands from the desk of a computer. At that very moment I knew I was dealing with a complex, obsessive and deeply troubled person.

I looked back at the Paul Klee painting offered by Palank, and noticed something familiar about its design. It bore striking resemblances to those ink drawings made by Franks, and their distinct titles: “Forged”, “Criminal Mind”, and “Madness”.

In a field of loops and swirls, I considered something more sinister behind the veil of Theresa Franks, and I remembered her own words about “why criminals do what they do.” I made one more call to Bernard Ewell and asked him again why Theresa Franks does what she does.

He said, “I don’t know enough about psychological disorders.”

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