Art collection is vast, but is it the real deal?
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In recent months, a Brookline man named Tony Greco has gingerly emerged into public view as an art dealer advertising original works by an astonishing array of famous names.
A little too astonishing, according to skeptics who find his claims hard to believe. But Mr. Greco, whose collection contains thousands of pieces across a wide spectrum, is adamant that he and his art are the real deal. And nobody, he insists, has been able to prove otherwise.
From the cartoon art that was his first love and makes up the bulk of his collection, Mr. Greco lists original pieces by Charles M. Schulz, Bill Watterson, Theodor Seuss Geisel, Charles Addams, Matt Groening, Gary Larson and others.
He's been collecting these pieces since childhood. Many, he says, came from the cartoonists themselves, whom he says he's known personally.
From the world of fine art and illustration, he also advertises pieces by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Joan Miro, Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Frederic Remington, George Seurat, Jean Cocteau, Erte, Al Hirschfeld, John Lennon, Maurice Sendak and Keith Haring. Mr. Greco says he was friends with Mr. Haring in the mid-1970s, when the latter studied at the now-closed Ivy School of Art in Pittsburgh and Mr. Greco attended Pittsburgh Beauty Academy.
Many pieces in the second group, he says, are not museum-quality canvases with a verifiable provenance but rather lesser works or small sketches on paper that were never cataloged. Most he simply keeps in folders without intent to sell -- on occasion a cat will lie on one on his desk -- but some are on the market.
His source, he says, is primarily inheritance -- from family members who brought them from Europe, but mostly from what he describes as a large cache of unsold inventory, left to him by a relative, from the fine art department of Kaufmann's Department Store. An exhaustive search of records and interviews with knowledgeable sources, however, could not verify the existence of such a department. [See sidebar article, "Chasing the 'Kaufmann' Link in Tony Greco's Collection."]
Mr. Greco, 53, has another stockpile that no one disputes. He has been featured in several published articles as one of the foremost collectors of authentic memorabilia from the 1960s TV show "The Munsters."
Yet for years, he kept a low profile on his other collections, serving as a quiet source for galleries and dealers, selling pieces directly to private clients or online, and donating works to charity auctions around town.
"Every gallery in the world has pieces of my collection," Mr. Greco says with typical expansiveness.
Then, in August, his wife of 20 years, Diane Flynn, opened The Gallery on Baum in a former car dealership to showcase and sell some of her husband's art collection.
"We got tired of dealers ripping us off, taking our stuff to sell and not sending us the money," he says. "Or I would give somebody a piece as a gift and he'd turn around and sell it. So we thought, why don't we open our own gallery and sell the work ourselves?
"I'm not looking to make a fortune here," he says. "I have so much of this stuff, I couldn't sell it all in my lifetime. We'll never live long enough to spend all the money. We have no kids, so we might as well get it out there and let people appreciate it."
The couple began advertising their wares and have been doing a brisk business selling published cartoons, animation art and cels, fan sketches -- quick drawings that cartoonists produce at a fan's request -- and cartoon studies, as well as works signed with the names of other famous artists of the 20th century. They continue to sell pieces through other galleries and online.
For a show at their gallery earlier this year, the price list offered a Keith Haring acrylic for $125,000, Warhols for up to $50,000, Dalis for up to $12,500 and Rockwells up to $10,000. But, they say, most items sell on-site for $150 to $5,000, or $50 to $1,500 on their Internet site, www.thegalleryonbaum.com.
Mr. Greco says everything he sells has been authenticated, but he won't say by whom -- a dead end that crops up time and again when trying to verify his statements. For example, he says many of his detractors buy from him privately while criticizing him publicly. Yet he won't name them because "They're still my customers."
For the most part, he says, the authentication business is "a racket," run by people with every incentive to repudiate what they don't control so they can keep the supply tight and the prices high.
"Everyone's an expert, but it's just their opinion!" Mr. Greco bellows. "I'm the one who's been doing this the longest, since I was a kid. I have the most stuff. I'm the real expert!"
His critics include Jean Schulz, widow of "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz; Lucy Caswell, curator of The Museum of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University; Tom Sokolowski, director of The Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side; and Joe Wos, cartoonist and founder-director of the ToonSeum of Pittsburgh.
Mrs. Schulz, who became the cartoonist's second wife in 1973 and lives in northern California, doubts Mr. Greco's claims of personal friendship with her late husband. She says she never met Mr. Greco -- he says she did -- or heard his name from her husband. Mr. Greco says the friendship predates that marriage.
Furthermore, Mrs. Schulz says she has seen no record of any correspondence between the two.
Mrs. Schulz says the family and studio have come across purported Schulz pieces in well-known galleries that are "clearly not Sparky's work" -- "Sparky" was Mr. Schulz's nickname -- and asked that they be removed. In some cases, she says, "Tony Greco was mentioned as the source." She would not identify those gallery owners, saying they did not want to be drawn into a controversy.
Ms. Caswell has seen photos of some purported "Calvin and Hobbes" originals by Bill Watterson in Mr. Greco's collection. That's odd, she says, because Mr. Watterson donated his entire collection to the Ohio State University museum.
"Our collection here has drawings with the same dates as the ones in the photos," she says. The content is the same, but where Mr. Greco's format is stacked -- with two frames on top and two underneath -- the museum's version is horizontal.
Mr. Greco counters that cartoonists don't make just one version of their drawings but often do preliminary work before completing the final product. He says he got most of his Wattersons some 15 years ago from other collectors. Mr. Watterson, who could not be reached, is a virtual recluse who almost never speaks to the media.
Mr. Sokolowski, who has seen Mr. Greco's collection, says he doubts the purported Warhols he saw were genuine based on his familiarity with Mr. Warhol's work. He agrees that some authenticators may have ulterior motives but adds that it doesn't make sense to eschew all the experts.
"Experts are experts for a reason," Mr. Sokolowski says. "They know their stuff. If Tony stands behind his collection, why wouldn't he want to prove it's real?"
Mr. Greco says his critics have an ax to grind.
"They don't want to believe someone like me could have all this great stuff," he says. "The art world is very cliquey, and I'm an outsider they can't control. They're scared of me because I have so much, they don't know where it ends. And you know what? It never ends. If I let it all out, it would depress the market overnight."
He knows what some people say about him and will even finish the sentence for you. He either has one of the world's most extensive and least-known collections or ...
"Or I'm full of [it]," he says. "If one's a fake, they're all fake and I'm the greatest forger in the world. And I can't draw a straight line.
"Those people who say I'm full of [it], I say 'Prove it!' " he says, jabbing the air. "You can't."
That much is mostly true, says Mr. Wos, who says that he, too, has reservations about the authenticity of some of Mr. Greco's cartoons.
"An expert can know in their heart that something is not authentic, but it's very difficult to prove," Mr. Wos says. "I can say that in my educated opinion as a cartoonist and cartoon art collector, many of the pieces in Tony's possession are of questionable authenticity and provenance. That's as far as I can go."
For example, he says, "A layman might not know that Schulz would never draw in crayon, but Tony has several pieces like that. For each one, he has a story to go with it. He can weave a great tale, and it's very hard to separate fact from fiction."
Mr. Greco says he gives a money-back guarantee with every sale and has had only two or three pieces returned in the past 15 years, although at least one client, the collector James Otis of Southern California, says he bought a few dozen pieces and returned about half of them for questions about their authenticity.
When questioned later, Mr. Greco allows that he refunds money only under certain conditions.
"Buyer's remorse is not a reason," he says. "Or if it's because your cousin says it doesn't look right, or someone at another gallery says it's no good but you can buy the real thing from them, forget it," he says.
The difficulty of verification can damage the legitimacy of the cartoon pool, where work often changes hands many times until no one knows its origins, Mr. Wos says.
"People are putting out thousands of pieces of art that end up in reputable galleries. Some may be forgeries, some may be authentic. But it's hard to prove the difference."
A Beechview native, Mr. Greco worked as a hairdresser at Kaufmann's Downtown for 10 years, owned a couple of motorcycle shops in the Pittsburgh region and raced motocross before moving into art sales.
An occasionally disheveled 5 feet, 9 inches -- "I dress like a bum," he says with a shrug -- he has the voice and gestures of a character from HBO's "The Sopranos" and jokes about the show's resemblance to his family history, although he declines to elaborate.
"You judge people by the company they keep," he says. "You know who my wife and I hang out with on the West Coast? Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. We're friends with Kevin Burns," the award-winning documentary producer who now runs Mr. Hefner's reality TV show, "The Girls Next Door."
Making a point, Mr. Greco looks you in the eye, spreads his fingers and throws his hands in the air. Often blunt-spoken, sometimes profane, occasionally hilarious, he has a tendency to yell and pace. Stories about his life, collection and innumerable grievances spill out, overlap and shoot off in other directions. Ask something he doesn't want to answer and he becomes vague or coy, cocking his eyebrows over a mischievous grin as if to say, "Wouldn't you like to know?" Sometimes he lowers his voice and looks over his shoulder, as if checking for eavesdroppers.
"Oh, I can't tell you that," he'll say, shaking his head and shooting a mysterious half-smile. Five minutes later, he's telling you that and more. He's opening files of little sketches on paper scraps signed "Miro," brandishing a sword that he says dates to the Crusades, pulling shirts from his closet signed by Fred Gwynne of "The Munsters," and introducing you to his cats, turtles and the 5-foot alligator, Anton, who lives in a tank in the bedroom and "watches" Fox News all day long. Through it all, he's as gleeful as a 10-year-old getting his first fan sketch in the mail.
Mr. Burns, the TV producer who met Mr. Greco 10 years ago through their mutual interest in "The Munsters," chuckles at the mention of his friend's name.
"Tony is the most colorful, interesting character I've ever met, and I've met lots," he says. "I take everything he says with a pound of salt, but I have every belief that he's honest. He believes what he says.
"He's loud and funny, like something out of Damon Runyon. He lives modestly but drives a Porsche, takes people and cats off the street, and if he likes you, he gives you things of incredible value.
"Once he told me, 'I'm so grateful, let me give you a Rockwell.' And I say, 'Where the hell did you get this, and why are you giving it away?' He said, 'I have so much of it, I don't know what to do with it all.' "
One buyer who trusts Mr. Greco implicitly is musician-songwriter George Michalski, a San Francisco performer and music director for a number of TV shows. He says he's bought hundreds of pieces from Mr. Greco over the past decade and considers his word about the authenticity of the pieces as good as gold.
"I've bought comic pieces, Dali, Picasso, Miro, the gamut, from Tony and I love it all," Mr. Michalski says. "Anything I want, he comes up with -- signatures of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Kennedy."
In the beginning, he says, he took things from Mr. Greco to dealers who specialize in the named artists and autographs.
"They would have been happy to tell me something wasn't real, believe me. But they said everything they saw was authentic. Since then I haven't thought twice about anything from Tony. In fact, I'm in the midst of buying a Matisse from him right now."
Mr. Greco started collecting cartoons as a child. He began by writing to the cartoonists, asking for fan sketches or whatever else they would send him. Then he branched out, attending cartoon conventions and trading with other collectors.
"For me, it was a passion," he says. "I did it for the love of it. The stuff I collected in the '60s and '70s, you couldn't give it away back then. Nobody cared about it. In the mid-'80s, the tide turned and it went from a hobby and love to a business.
"In the '90s, I was a source to all the other animation galleries. But with the Internet, the world got closer. You could go online and buy whatever you wanted. It was a double-edged sword. Now people are out there selling all kinds of stuff, but a lot of it isn't the real thing. Mine is the real thing."
Barry Sandoval, who runs the comic market for Heritage Auctions in Dallas, says the company did $19 million in comic and comic art sales last year. Cartoon fakes, he says, are a fairly recent phenomenon. Mr. Sandoval says he does not know anything about Mr. Greco or his collection.
"It used to be that forgeries were no factor in comic art," he says. "Now they're starting to creep in. We're on our guard more than ever. But fortunately for us, someone who's really skilled could make more money forging the great masters."
One complicating factor is that a lot of artists used assistants to do their drawings but still signed their own names to the work. Mr. Sandoval notes that Bob Kane, creator of Batman, hired assistants. And Charles M. Schulz's characters often were drawn by licensees for commercial purposes but never for the comic strip itself, Mrs. Schulz says.
Mr. Greco says there's another complication: Some cartoonists had such prodigious output, they themselves might not recognize everything they ever drew. That's especially true with fan sketches, he says.
"If you did thousands of these things for kids like me who wrote and asked you to send something, and somebody showed you one 20 years later, how could you be sure if you did it or not?" he asks.
Counters Mr. Wos, "They may not know a quick sketch they did for a fan, but they know what materials they used, or if they ever put that grouping of characters together."
Mr. Greco's critics use the same phrase regarding his wares.
"Let the buyer beware," they say.
To an extent, Mr. Greco agrees.
"This business runs on trust," he says. "If you don't trust me, don't buy from me."
First Published April 11, 2010 12:00 am