Michigan photography dealer allegedly defrauded customers aged over $1.6 million by pretending to be in a coma

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A Michigan-based photography dealer has been arrested for orchestrating a scheme to defraud elderly collectors out of an estimated $1.6 million.

The FBI charged the dealer, Wendy Halsted Beard of the Wendy Halsted Gallery in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, with wire fraud and bank fraud in US district court earlier this month.

The filing claims she deceived customers in several ways: in some cases, she accepted payments for artwork but never delivered the paid pieces; in others, she took works of art on consignment and then sold them without notifying their owners. Beard also allegedly went to great lengths to dodge payments, including faking personal health crises and making up employees.

At least five people – all anonymous – claimed they were defrauded by Beard in an affidavit filed with the court, and law enforcement officials suggest there are likely others who have yet to come forward . Last week, the FBI office in Detroit released a Press release calling for “public assistance in identifying other potential victims”.

Beard did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted through his attorney.

In 2018, an 82-year-old anonymous art collector entrusted $900,000 worth of photographic prints to Beard. Among them was a large-scale engraving by Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park (1942), which Beard valued at $625,000. In 2019, the dealer said she took Adams’ photograph to Jackson, Wyoming to sell, but was unsuccessful.

Court documents revealed that Beard actually consigned the piece herself to a Jackson-based gallery, later selling it for $440,000. She never informed the owner of the print that the piece had sold, effectively pocketing the money instead.

The owner made several attempts to retrieve Adams’ print and other recorded photographs, but Beard responded with an apology, saying she suffered from lung problems, had been repeatedly unconscious, and had been placed on a bed. waiting list for a lung transplant.

In August 2021, an email from a gallery employee named “Julie” explained that Beard “had been on the transplant list for quite a while, but with this progression they felt it necessary to bring her to critical stage. for the transplant. Yesterday a successful transplant was performed.

Ten days later, another correspondence from the gallery arrived, this one from a staff member named “Katy”, who said that “Wendy had her double lung transplant and was a little risky, but we hope that ‘they’ll take the vent out and bring it up this afternoon or tomorrow.

The FBI discovered that the email accounts of Julie, Katy and others had all been taped to Beard’s personal cell phone number. No payroll information existed for these alleged employees.

“Based on my experience and training, I believe Beard created these and other fictitious assistants and email addresses as part of the fraud and to create sympathy for her victims and justify why she didn’t had not returned their artwork,” an FBI special agent wrote in the filing. The complaint also points out that there is no record of Beard on any transplant list.

The other victims in the document reported similar experiences with Beard.

In 2020, a man in his late 80s gave five photographs, including two of Adams, to the dealer. But after the photos went unsold, the man’s child claimed them.

When the relative received the returned artwork, they discovered that Adams’ signature was missing on one print and another was the wrong photograph of Adams. Police then showed up at Beard’s door looking for the original consigned photos, but the packaged examples she provided them also turned out to be the wrong ones.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist in his late 60s also uploaded photos to the gallery in 2020. He hasn’t seen them since, nor has he been paid for his work.

In 2021, Beard sold another photograph of Adams to a friend for $73,000. But the buyer never saw the artwork, and when he contacted the dealer about it, she again cited medical issues as the reason for the delay.

“On computer finally,” Beard wrote in an email. “It was a crazy last bit…. Not all gone but at least out of the months-long coma. Nice to see the sorry sun so short later.”

Two weeks before this message, the FBI had observed the dealer leaving his home. “Beard did not appear to be physically disabled,” the officer wrote in the filing.

Beard was released on bail on October 14. She is due back in court in early November.

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