Art Bait



Winslow Homer was a prolific artist. Records are not available of the number of finished and unfinished works of art he created. Homer had distinct periods in his art, which had been affected by where he lived. This simplified the search for paper made during his active years as an artist. Old book stores had many books printed during his career The bookís contents were of no value, but the blank front and back fly-leaves were important. Using paper and paints dating back to specific dates, forgeries were simplified.

The blank fly-leaf paper from the old book was transformed by Ancel, the forger, into a typical Winslow Homer water color of his Maine period. Others, Ancel painted in the style of Homerís Cape Cod or Caribbean period. Like many artists, Winslow Homer made numerous sketches before making a desired painting. He also made many sketches and unfinished water color paintings. Some of Homerís paintings had his full signature, some only had a WH marking, and many unfinished paintings and sketches were unsigned. Ancel made forgeries to comply with Homerís specific periods. The water color paintings would become the bait. The best fishing grounds would be where there were tourists and art lovers. Sag Harbor, Greenport, and Mystic, Connecticut were Ancelís prime areas to sell his forgeries.

At times, during summer vacation, his cruiser, would be docked in Sag Harbor,. where antique and art shops were bountiful. Tourists meandered through the streets and along the waterfront. Ancel took a blank canvas, oil paints, an easel and an envelope containing the Ďbaití. Ancelís forgeries had the initials WH. There were a few unfinished drawings without any signature. He set up an easel and started painting, copying from a water color drawing. Strollers would stop and watch the painter. Some remained for a while others gave a cursory glance and moved away. A man exhibiting interest in the small water color painting Ancel used as a model said, "Is that water color for sale?"

"No. I am copying from it," Ancel muttered, as he continued to paint, he noticed that the man was peering at the initials in the corner of the water color.

"I like the scene. Can I look at it closely? Where did you get it?"

Ancel handed him the water color. "At a Cape Cod yard sale. A man was selling his grandmotherís house and its contents. Before she died, the old lady had accumulated a lot of junk over the years. She had many old paintings, mostly water colors. I bought some used water color paint sets and some water color paintings. He threw in some free sketches and unfinished paintings."

His eyes pleaded as he made an anxious request, "Can I see them?" From the folder Ancel removed a water color of a house on a cranberry bog, and two unfinished water color paintings. After a long pause, the man asked, "Do you want to sell them?"

Ancel shook a negative as he kept on painting. "Iíll give you ten dollars for this house scene, including the unfinished water colors and sketches," was his daring offer. A few curious onlookers also looked at the paintings. After a tense silence, with desperate hope, the potential buyer said, "Twenty five dollars for all of them."

"Iím not selling any of them. I want to copy from them. I have some paintings for sale that I made. Want to see some?" Ancel wore his happy hopeful mask.

"I like the water color you are copying, and this house painting. I want them for my wife. She loves water color scenes. Iíll give you fifty dollars for all of them."

"Iíll sell them when I am finished with them, When I finish copying from this and the house scene, Iíll sell them. Not before. Yesterday, I refused to sell them to a man from Manhattan He offered me much more than you. I did sell him a small unfinished water color for twenty dollars. He is coming back here in two days to make me an offer. Your wife may not like them. Why not show her my paintings?" Ancel stopped painting and started to put his equipment on his boat. The onlookers started to disperse. "Iíll be here for two more days before I leave to cruise on Long Island Sound."

"Can I borrow the painting to show my wife? Iíll leave a deposit and bring it back tomorrow," he pleaded, "How much deposit do you want?"

"Iíll let you take the pencil sketch the artist made of the scene I am painting. Leave a twenty dollar deposit. Youíll get it back when you return the sketch." Ancel took the manís twenty dollars and handed him the sketch. He knew the buyer would be racing to check the age of the paper and possible authenticity of the drawing.

Ancel watched as he ate breakfast from the coffee shop across the road from the docks. As he expected, the potential buyer had returned early. After calling from the dock, he boarded the boat and knocked on the cabin door. Receiving no answer, he peered in the cabin window, then he climbed back on the dock and looked about. Ancel left the coffee shop by a side door and strolled about Main Street until noon, before returning to his boat. He knew a determined buyer would still be there, waiting..

"Did your wife like the sketch?" Ancel asked as he approached the pacing buyer..

"Yes. She liked the water color youíre copying from.. What do you want for it?"

"She ought to look at my oil paintings, Maybe sheíd like one of my oil paintings. I sold one of my oil paintings to a tourist. We bargained, and he agreed to buy my painting for two hundred dollars, if the water color I copied from was included. I agreed, but I wanted cash. Heís coming back in a few hours with cash."

The buyerís eyes expressed his hope, "Did he give you a deposit?"

"No! But I made a deal."

With hope evident in his voice, the Ďbuyerí said, "Iíll give you two-hundred-fifty in cash. Right now."

"Thanks for the offer, but I canít accept it. He is coming back with cash, and heíll buy two of my oil paintings, and heíll make a deal for all the water color paintings and sketches I bought in Cape Cod."

The buyer became very excited. Ancel knew he was firmly hooked when he was asked, "Sell me your oil painting and the water colors. Iíll give you double for it." Then he quickly added an incentive. "What will you take in cash, right now, if I buy your two paintings plus the water colors, and sketches, finished and unfinished."

He bought all the art work for six-hundred-forty dollars. That was all the cash he had on him. The next day in Mystic, Connecticut, Ancel set up his easel and displayed more bait.

Versatile artists could use many techniques and media in forging works of art. Ancel found it safer and easier to specialize with water color drawings and renderings of a few known masters. It was safer to let someone else believe that they had found a genuine art work. Some art critics or experts look forward to being the one to discover or authenticate a lost or rediscovered masterpiece. Ancel merely displayed his wares. The buyer purchased what he saw and believed that he made a wonderful acquisition.

With a Homer painting in an art catalog as a model, Ancel would make variations and paint on four to six sheets of paper that had been the fly-leaf of old books. Mixing a color and using it on multiple drawings was a time saver. Homer had sketched and made many varied drawings of a scene before selecting one as a final painting. Ancel separated the copies into Homerís known periods. He did not sell the same scene in the same area, but sold it in other locations. Ancel interspersed the sale of homerís Maine, Cape Cod, and Caribbean periods. Forgeries of Homerís water colors were very successful. Ancel never claimed that they were authentic, and he never suggested that the name, or the initials, were those of Winslow Homer. Ancel used the water color drawings he had forged as models for his oil paintings. He said that he had purchased them at yard sales or in art shops. Connoisseurs, collectors, and art experts who thought that they found some Winslow Homer art, would make an effort to acquire them.

No potential buyer ever told Ancel that the water color he had might be very valuable, or might have been painted by Winslow Homer. Those that purchased the bait, thought they were getting a great deal. Ancel was surprised, and covertly proud, when years later he saw two of his forgeries, a Maine scene and a Cape Cod cranberry bog drawing, displayed as the work of Winslow Homer in a prestigious museum.

Once at a Park Avenue party, the host, an avid art collector, showed his guests a number of Winslow Homer paintings and sketches. The host had not recognized the formally dressed Ancel among his guests as he smugly boasted, "I bought them in Mystic, Connecticut from an artist who was using these Homerís as models to copy from. I had experts examine them. They are genuine Winslow Homerís water colors and sketches. The jerk who sold them did not know how valuable they were."