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Sunday, February 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thesaurus scandal tars art-gallery scene

Seattle Times staff reporters

Cheney Cowles, distinguished, mild-mannered proprietor of Crane Gallery and past president of the Seattle Art Museum's Asian Arts Council, almost got into a fistfight last week.

"A guy at an auction company said all Asian art dealers are crooks," Cowles said. "I went berserk."

For Cowles and other dealers, the ethics of the art trade have been a hot-button topic since a Seattle Times investigation exposed a Pioneer Square gallery for selling fake Chinese antiquities.

People who got taken by the gallery, Thesaurus Fine Arts, as well as legitimate art dealers and avid collectors, say the exposure of the store's deceptive practices changed the ecology of the Seattle art scene.

"The bad side of it is, it does kind of tar the rest of us," Cowles said.

Thesaurus fallout

Thesaurus was importing cheap reproductions from Hong Kong, declaring them as new for Customs, and then marketing them as ancient artifacts, sometimes backed up with false findings on certificates of scientific testing.

After The Times reported the practices Jan. 26, Thesaurus closed its store and eBay closed its Internet auctions of Thesaurus goods.

The state attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission have launched civil investigations into deceptive trade practices, but Customs closed its file on the store, saying consumer fraud is not a Customs case.

Meanwhile, Steven Cheung, the multimillionaire economist, Hong Kong celebrity and former University of Washington professor behind Thesaurus, and his wife, Linda Su Cheung, are now fugitives in China, having failed to appear in U.S. District Court in Seattle Thursday to face tax-evasion charges.

But for many in the art world, the scandal still sends shock waves.

One respected Pioneer Square gallery owner said he feared the bad publicity would hurt all the neighborhood galleries.

What will it take for dealers to reassure their customers? And how can collectors protect themselves from fraud?

'It muddies the waters'

Many art-world insiders can't understand how so many people got taken in the first place. Many Pioneer Square regulars say they were long suspicious of the shop.

Daniel Stalcup owns Chidori, an Asian and ethnographic art store just around the corner from Thesaurus. "It is a huge relief to get rid of the effrontery of Thesaurus doing business for so long, so close," he said.

He said Thesaurus' practices were unprecedented in a buyer-beware market because the store backed up fake merchandise with supposedly accurate scientific testing certificates.

"The brazenness," Stalcup said. "It muddies the waters so much."

But many customers found Thesaurus a respectable-seeming place with a friendly staff. That approachability may have given the store an advantage over other, more exclusive-looking galleries.

"I think people are a little intimidated when they go into galleries where there is kind of a club feeling," said Seattle art conservator Patricia Leavengood. "New collectors are very timid."

Thesaurus aimed its business at less-experienced collectors.

For people with beginners' knowledge of Chinese art, Thesaurus' prices seemed like a bargain. If the objects were truly what they were purported to be, they'd be worth much more.

John Fairman, a respected dealer and owner of Honeychurch Antiques, said the bargain-hunter mentality has always been a setup for scams.

When a buyer thinks he's getting a steal, it puts him on shaky ground later if he wants to complain. Fairman noted there's a kind of complicity between buyer and seller in these circumstances.

With printed information about the objects, Thesaurus promoted the idea that buyers might later make a profit on their purchases.

Neophyte buyers had no idea what the price should be — a dangerous position to begin with — and bought on impulse, based on a romantic idea of the object.

"They're emotional purchases, things that make you smile," said Annie Garretson, who spent $250 on a "Qing" porcelain bowl and $1,226 for a "Tang" horse from Thesaurus.

Seattle bookstore owner Jamie Lutton paid $600 for a figurine purported to be from the Neolithic period in China. It seemed like a bargain for an ancient household god.

"This was supposed to be something handled by someone 3,000 years ago," she said.

Only one buyer who contacted The Times was motivated by a love of the object. Ian McLauchlan, a Canadian professor of cultural studies, said he bought a bowl that he knew was a fake but that he found beautiful and well-priced. His anger with store owner Cheung arose only when Cheung refused to admit it was a fake. "I decided to have nothing more to do with him."

Getting burned

Even the experts get fooled on occasion, and most collectors readily admit that they've been burned at least once. The antidote: Learn more.

Most top art collectors will tell you it's treacherous to buy art with the hope of making a profit, but some Thesaurus clients did just that. One Seattle buyer who spent more than $30,000 said he saw his purchases as an investment.

"Buy what you love" is a better motto.

That's especially true in the volatile market for Chinese pottery, according to Roger Belanich, 65, an Eastside collector who's been buying Asian art for 20 years. "It's hard to establish the value of something. One has to be really knowledgeable to evaluate, to know the market, know the other pieces in the world."

And even when you do follow the prices, things change.

"They make a new dig in China and suddenly there's a flood of this stuff and the market would change overnight," Belanich said.

Having an idea of the current market price for what you're buying is just one part of the equation. The other, more essential, part is to know what you are looking at.

A "good eye" — that elusive characteristic of museum curators and smart collectors — comes with experience, said art conservator Leavengood. "It's learning to look at things, compare and contrast, talk to people who are reputable, who know what makes things good or suspect."

One way of getting familiar with the real thing is to visit the outstanding collections at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. The museum also has a reference library that is a favorite haunt of Asian-art aficionados.

Yet even after years of study, many collectors agree the most important thing they have learned is how much they don't know. One serious buyer said it requires a "full dedication of your life."

But even less-committed collectors enjoy the process.

"It's a complete joy!" said retired Boeing engineer Philip Flash, 82. "It's stimulating, it's educational, it's a good way of spending time."

And the objects themselves become a source of joy and memory.

"There's a story behind them all," he said.

The bad taste left by the Thesaurus scandal won't diminish that enjoyment for most people.

"You make these discoveries, you do back off a step or two," said Belanich.

"Then you wake up and say to yourself: I still love it."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com. Duff Wilson: 206-464-2288 or dwilson@seattletimes.com

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