Finders Keepers? A Warhol Surfaces and Is Headed for Court
Feb 6, 2008
Last September, a man who has admittedly lived a hard-knock life walked into Christie’s auction house with an Andy Warhol painting of a dollar sign and asked to have it put up for sale.
Though one can never judge by appearances, especially when it comes to art lovers, something about this particular art lover, Jason Beltrez, seemed a little bit off to the staff at Christie’s.
They accepted the painting but immediately searched a databank of lost and stolen art, to make sure it was legitimate.
“Bingo,” as Chris Marinello, an attorney working on behalf of the insurer put it Tuesday.
The painting was one of two Warhol dollar-sign paintings, created in 1981, measuring about 16 by 20 inches, that disappeared from the walls of the Martin Lawrence Galleries in SoHo on Valentine’s Day in 1998.
Now the gallery is suing Mr. Beltrez to get the painting back, claiming it has clear title under the law. But Mr. Beltrez, 44, has hired a lawyer and is fighting back, casting himself as an honest man, a Brooklyn homeowner, father of three children and former grocery store manager who got lucky.
He says he bought the painting for $180 at a New Jersey flea market, and deserves either to get it back or to be rewarded. He invokes the law of the street — finders keepers, losers weepers.
“It’s the big guy trying to get over the little guy,” Mr. Beltrez, who said he had managed a C-town supermarket in the Bronx until about a year and a half ago. He is unemployed now.
Mr. Marinello, said that he sympathized with Mr. Beltrez’s position, but that the law was against him. “I tried to negotiate with Mr. Beltrez,” Mr. Marinello said Tuesday. “When it was clear that he did not understand, I urged him to get a lawyer. I even spoke to his social worker in Brooklyn.”
The gallery and Christie’s through their lawyers declined to comment.
Mr. Beltrez, interviewed at his three-story house in Windsor Terrace, said he had found the painting, a gold and crimson image of a dollar sign, at a flea market outside the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey in the mid-1990s. He said he used to go there because he was a Giants fan and a collector of Lalique and Baccarat crystal.
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“It was very fiery,” he said. “I thought it would bring me luck.”
He hung it in a place of honor between two green-curtained windows and across from a crimson couch in his living room.
His luck has not been so good, though. After a death in the family about nine months ago, he said, he began abusing intravenous drugs and went into drug rehabilitation — hence the social worker.
Then, he said, a friend recognized the painting as having been painted by “the Campbell’s soup guy,” and offered him $40,000 for it.
Instead, Mr. Beltrez took the painting to Christie’s, thinking it was “the right thing” to do.
Mr. Beltrez admitted that there were some odd coincidences in this case. He was raised on Broome Street a few blocks from the gallery at 457 West Broadway, where the painting was stolen in 1998. Some public records show he lived there at that time, though Mr. Beltrez said he moved in 1989.
Mr. Marinello said that the police investigation of the theft was continuing but that no criminal charges had been filed.
Mr. Beltrez said he expected to be vindicated. “This country is only fair for people lined in green,” he said. “I know I’m the good guy.”
In October, 2009, Marinello settled the case between Beltrez and the theft victim with the painting being returned to the gallery.