Over the years, I’ve seen numerous cases of art industry players behaving badly. Exuberant prices can bring out the worst in people. As a rule, the world of folk art tends to be better behaved. Its zeitgeist contains neither a Sotheby’s/Christie’s price-fixing scandal nor a hidden stash of purloined Wildenstein paintings – we’re told the latter was a bookkeeping oversight.
Not to be undone by the fine arts, a notable folk art personality is headed for the slammer. Ralph Esmerian, a jeweler and former chairman for the American Folk Art Museum, was sentenced to six years in federal prison along with 1,800 days of community service. He was also fined $20 million for bankruptcy and wire fraud.
The seventy-one year old Esmerian double-pledged collateral in order to obtain $210 million dollars in loans which enabled him to purchase a high end Madison Avenue jewelry boutique. This fraud would have gone undetected if not for one little problem: Esmerian couldn’t properly manage his ill-gotten resources. The boutique filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008. To cover expenses, Esmerian liquidated assets he used as collateral in order to obtain another $40M loan. Needless to say, the banks and courts frown on this type of behavior.
It’s a shame to see a life come to a close like this. Esmerian is not without some redemption. In 2001, he pledged 400 works of earlier American folk art to the museum. These included a comprehensive collection of Pennsylvania German material, Shaker gift drawings, needlework samplers, and paintings by artists such as Edward Hicks and Sheldon Peck.