The Art of the Steal

Harcourts Gallery was at the center of S.F.'s serious art scene for decades. Now, with serious money missing, the gallery's at the center of a criminal investigation.

In 1994, Paul Villierme had the chance to demonstrate gratitude of the type few sons are able to show. He had met a curator for a prominent San Francisco art dealer, Harcourts Gallery, and signed an agreement under which the gallery would have exclusive rights to show paintings by Villierme's father, Henry. The elder Villierme's work would also be featured during a well-publicized summer show at Harcourts' choice new gallery space, a half-block from the just-opened and phenomenally popular San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In his youth, Villierme's father studied under successful members of a school of painters known as the Bay Area figurists, led by David Park and Richard Diebenkorn. To put bread on the table for a growing family, however, Henry Villierme put his art career on a back burner in the early 1970s and moved to Southern California, to take a job in a bank.

"His love is painting," says Paul Villierme, 27, the third of Henry's four children. "Family is more important, though. With artists that gets blurred sometimes."

Villierme fils thought that the gallery deal with Harcourts might put his dad on the artistic map as an heir to his figurist instructors. And at first, the arrangement seemed to work wonders. During the 1995 summer show, four of Henry Villierme's paintings sold, garnering the 68-year-old painter $13,000, after the gallery took its traditional 50 percent cut of the selling price.

In the spring of 1996, checks stopped arriving in Henry Villierme's mailbox, but Paul thought nothing of the interruption; he just called the gallery's curator, Kim Eagle-Smith, to suggest that Harcourts' inventory of his father's work be swapped for other creations, to jump-start sales. But, Paul recalls, "Mr. Eagle-Smith said, 'We don't need anything new right now.' "

A few weeks later, Paul started calling again but was picked off by a rotating guard of receptionists, each of whom offered various versions of: "Mr. Eagle-Smith is unavailable." On June 4 of last year, however, Villierme was finally told the truth: Kim Eagle-Smith had been dismissed.

The son of the artist paid a visit to Harcourts Gallery the next day. He did not find the thriving, well-appointed, upscale art dealership to which he had consigned his father's work two years earlier.

Instead, Villierme was met by a paper sign tacked to the door, announcing that Harcourts was closed for inventory. Staffers stepped out only long enough to say they were legally bound not to discuss the gallery's circumstances. Villierme had seen and heard enough.

In a focused panic, he raised a boot. With a swift kick, the lock on the front door to Harcourts was reduced to a loose assembly of mechanical trash.

"Luckily," he says, "I wore my Doc Martens that day."
Once inside, Villierme scanned the gallery's white walls and carpeted floors; dozens of paintings and sculptures were in various stages of packaging for shipping or storage.

"I'm just here to get my father's paintings," he told surprised gallery employees, and, indeed, one of his father's works, Red Striped Awning, was hanging on a wall. But the 10 or so other paintings Villierme expected to find on display were nowhere to be seen.

In an attempt to calm Villierme that had precisely the opposite effect, one gallery worker explained that the artworks were being packed because "a real estate agent is coming soon to show the space." Using the possibility of an escalating scene as leverage, Villierme demanded to be shown the accounting file relating to his father's work. Villierme was stunned. Even though his father had received no payments for months, Harcourts had done a brisk business in art by Villierme pere.

One record said: "Santa Ynez Landscape." Sold. $4,000.
Another: "Daydream on Terrace." Sold. $8,500.
"Bike Path." Sold. $2,500. And on, and on.

Villierme dropped the file. He walked over to Red Striped Awning and pulled the framed canvas from the wall. Just then, the phone rang. The receiver was passed to Villierme.

"What are you doing, Paul?" asked Fred E. Banks, owner of Harcourts Gallery. "You are trespassing. I am calling the police."

When Villierme began to ask about his father's work, Banks interrupted, said he couldn't comment, and quickly added: "But don't even think about taking that painting."

Villierme didn't think. He just grabbed the work and ran. As he hailed a cab with Red Striped Awning under his arm, what had once been one of San Francisco's toniest art galleries briefly resembled the scene of a brazen art heist. In fact, there had been a heist, and it was brazen indeed, but Villierme was hardly the wrongdoer.

Harcourts Gallery and Fred Banks were fixtures in the San Francisco fine art scene for nearly 30 years. Banks opened the gallery's doors a couple of blocks off Union Square, at 535 Powell St., in 1967. Patrons with money and, perhaps, taste could hop from Fisherman's Wharf-bound cable cars or step out of one of S.F.'s top department stores to shop at Harcourts.

But it was the art boom of the 1980s that lifted Banks into the heights of the city's art world. Amid the merger-and-acquisitions, savings-and-loan mania of the Reagan years, when paper fortunes and putative millionaires multiplied like fruit flies, art became an investment vehicle with cachet, a stylish commodity that seemed to match the high-flying times. The spectacular run-up in art prices during the 1980s enriched and emboldened dealers worldwide, particularly those holding impressionist and post-impressionist works. Banks' gallery reaped its share of the boom; his clients included pillars of S.F.'s professional circles, and when he'd throw a party at a swank San Francisco restaurant it got noticed in the society pages.

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