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Serial Dishonesty by Jack White

Serial Dishonesty
by Jack White

Dear Leonie,
This post is by Jack White, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  Jack has enjoyed a forty-one year career as a successful fulltime artist and author. He has written for Professional Artist Magazine for 14 years and has six art marketing books published. In 1976 Jack was named the Official Artist of Texas. He has mentored hundreds of artists around the world.  Jack authored seven Art Marketing books. The first, “Mystery of Making It”, describes how he taught Mikki to paint and has sold over six million dollars worth of her art. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here. 
When I reluctantly made the choice to become an artist, my biggest concern was would I fit into the mold of those in the trade. I saw artists as being only a few steps below celestial angels. My hard hitting, wheeler-dealer, shady background just didn’t fit the image of the purity I firmly believed was found in the art colony.  I saw artists as amazingly creative people and prayed there was room for one black sheep in this saintly enclave. I felt they were like nuns sans the habit and believed only those with special gifts from God were given permission to make art.
Man doesn’t create art, we make it. Only God can take absolutely nothing and create something. We don’t create anything; we put several existing objects together to build an art piece.
I’m normally a good judge of people. However; I was totally off course in what I believed about the art world. After getting into the art business, I began to realize I was a baby lamb among hungry feral wolves. My greatest shock was discovering how much serial dishonesty actively permeates the world I thought was pure as freshly, fallen snow.
I quickly learned artists copy others and then lie about how original their product is. Truthfully, there is very little originality found in artistic output today. What is the rule on writing? Copying a paragraph is called plagiarism. Steal bits and pieces from fifty sources and you call that research.
I have no problem with artists getting ideas from others. This was the original intent for museums; students could go there and study the Masters. The Louvre is still packed with artists sketching and copying the art. The few times I’ve visited the Met, I’ve always seen young artists attempting to duplicate the work of the wonderful painters of the past. We learn by copying. Babies copy adults in learning to eat and talk. Crawl, walk and then run. This is the normal cycle of nature. We all copy others to learn, but then you must become your own person. When I began with oils, I copied dozens of paintings. I burned them all but this is how I learned color and brush strokes. I’m troubled by artists copying others and then claiming the work’s originality.
In the 90s, Mikki and I were visiting an outdoor show in Albuquerque. We came upon a booth full of copies of Mikki’s work. At the time, we were running full page ads in several art magazines. The guy had copied all of her ad images. I wish you could have seen his face when I introduced him to Mikki Senkarik. He turned white. Before he could make any excuse, I firmly said, “Sir, do you know these images are copyrighted? By law we can sue you for $50,000 per image.”
This was before the days of cell phones. I suggested I needed to go phone our attorney and would be back shortly. You can already figure what we found when we returned. His tent, along with all of the art, had vanished. We didn’t have a clue where he went. I bet those were the last Senkariks he copied.
When we lived in Maui, a local gallery asked if they could represent Mikki’s art. We leased a condo on the beach, just a couple of blocks from the gallery. They started out hot and picked up the speed almost weekly. In no time at all, they were selling more than Mikki could paint. When she finished a piece, we would walk the fresh art to the gallery. We walked in the gallery early one morning with a wet painting in hand and a couple rushed to greet us. We’d been laughing at something, but stopped when we saw the concerned look on their faces. “Mikki, you don’t know us, but we just purchased your wonderful painting, UP COUNTRY.  The art gallery told us about the sudden death of your mother and that you needed the funds to fly home.”
The only problem was Mikki’s mother had been dead at least twenty years.  No wonder the gallery was selling so many Senkarik paintings. They were telling a lot of very inventive lies. We walked home, jumped in our rented clunker and drove to the gallery to pick up all of Mikki’s art. We went to another gallery up in Kahului and continued to sell at the same torrid pace. By that time, we’d made several friends.  They’d go in and act like customers. We felt comfortable when the new gallery was never caught in any lies.
When the Texas economy tanked during the 1980’s, oil companies closed, banks and savings and loans folded and there were zero art sales.  Even those who had paid large deposits for portraits, canceled their paintings with me keeping the good faith money. I purchased an Airstream and headed to Florida. I followed the art show circuit.  We were at the shows six days a week, traveling the seventh to get to the next event. I set up my show with blank canvases and painted on location, selling the wet oils. I placed smaller pieces in pizza boxes for safe transport. Once a week, I FedExed the checks and cash home to keep my kids in school and pay the bills. Most of the shopping malls allowed me to park my small Airstream in their parking lot.
At the shows I worked, there was a father and son team who were always set up somewhere near my tent. They were selling very detailed oil paintings in ornate gold leaf frames. They always had a huge inventory of fresh pieces. I’d see them sell a dozen pieces at one show and then do the same the following week. I asked an artist from Canada when they had time to paint all of those high detailed pieces. I knew they would need five or six days to paint just one. I paint fast but I would be hard pressed to do one a week. 
The Canadian artist began to laugh at my quandary. He answered, “Italy.”
“Italy ?” I was totally puzzled.
“Yes, they make a trip twice a year to an art factory in Italy. The factory produces all of those excellent pieces of art without a signature. The father and son sign the paintings once they are back in the states.” He laughed at my dismay and continued. “They purchase those beautiful frames from China. They buy a container load and only pay a few dollars per frame.”
My natural response was, “How much is a few dollars?”
He adjusted his thick glasses and answered, “Five dollars for the large frames. I think the 16”x20” frames are under three.”
I had overheard the son pointing out to a client that a particular gold leaf frame would retail for $400 in a frame shop. It was one he’d purchased for three.
Folks, this is a prime example of serial dishonesty. The last show I did with them, the Sheriff’s Deputy came and arrested them. I never learned the outcome. The show promoter told me after she learned of their scheme she called the Sheriff. They were charged with swindling. 
A famous gallery in Austin did bank shows all over west Texas. When an old rancher would tell them his family owned a Salinas, the gallery would offer to take their painting and “refresh” the art at no charge. When the art arrived back in Austin, the gallery owner had an artist make him a copy of the Salinas. Then he’d take that fresh copy to the old rancher.
When I was doing bank shows, I ran into one of those old ranchers bragging about the nice man at the Austin gallery “refreshing” his Salinas. He was so proud and had brought it to show me. My mouth fell open. I recognized the brushwork on the grass as being that of a friend; it was not a real Salinas. Today, the artist who copied those Salinas paintings is world famous. The gallery sold the authentic Salinas for a large sum of money. He probably paid the artist $1,000 to make the copy and sold the original art for $25,000. The piece the old rancher got was worth about $500. This is serial dishonesty.
In my many years in the art industry, I’ve seen scores of dishonest incidents. Even if telling the truth costs you a sale, do the right thing.
If I tell you a goose will pull a wagon, you can go get the goose harness. I’ve sold thousands of paintings and never told a lie to close a sale. I’m sure in my zest to sell I’ve been very inventive, but have never knowingly swindled anyone to close a sale. One question artists are almost always asked when making a sale is, “Will this painting increase in value?”
I answered truthfully, “If I become famous, they might be worth more than they are now.”
As one wise old timer told me, “Unless you have perfect memory tell the truth. By speaking the truth you don’t have to remember what you say. Tell the truth and you can always look straight at yourself in the mirror.