Four-year Search Ends In Catch-22 For Art Collector

July 05, 1990|by GEOFF GEHMAN, The Morning Call

Charles C. Dent wasn’t surprised when he learned his missing 14-3/4-inch-high bronze version of Auguste Rodin’s “Le Penseur (The Thinker)” had ended up in Japan.

The Breinigsville resident explains that sales of Impressionist art to the Japanese escalated in 1986, the year Bruton Gallery Inc. sold his sculpture to Marueido Co. Ltd., a Tokyo art dealership. Many collectors, adds Dent, purchase tabletop sculpture by Rodin and other artists to complement paintings by Claude Monet or Mary Cassatt.

Last February turned out to be a seesaw month for Dent, a retired commercial-airline pilot, philanthropist and owner of many bronzes. After nearly four years of being in the dark, he knew the identity of the last recorded owner of his Rodin. His enthusiasm, however, fizzled when he discovered Japan’s strict property laws.

According to that country’s civil code, someone who has had an article stolen or lost can recover it freely only within two years of its disappearance. After the deadline, the original owner can offer to reimburse the current owner, but the latter is not required to accept the proposal. The law assumes the current owner bought the article without knowing it was stolen or lost.

Since the FBI lists the Rodin’s date of theft as Aug. 18, 1986 — the day Dent first met with an Allentown agent — he cannot legally reacquire “The Thinker” in Japan.

Dent was tracking something besides the sculpture. In February he was preparing an ad listing a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Thomas Doyle, the dealer Dent says owes him $55,400 of a $70,000 consignment fee from the Rodin’s sale. Around the time Dent was offering the “wanted” notice to art and antiques publications, he learned that Doyle had been arrested and jailed Feb. 21 in Des Moines, Iowa.

According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Doyle used a female acquaintance’s identification tag to gain admittance to restricted areas of a state racetrack. IDCI agent Rollie Hoffman says Doyle stopped visiting these places last May, after track officials challenged him to produce his own license.

Iowa wasn’t the only Midwestern state in which Doyle negotiated. Joyce Farrell, a board member of the Minnesota Thoroughbred Association, told The Des Moines Register that Doyle couldn’t cover his $14,000 bid on a filly at a 1988 auction (The horse won more than $100,000 in 1989). Farrell noted that Doyle, or someone representing Doyle, repeatedly phoned her to insist that relatives who owned an art gallery would give him money for horse payments.

Hoffman indicates that Doyle was late in paying for a horse owned by an Iowa resident. After passing a bad check, says the IDCI agent, Doyle finally signed over his right to the horse to cover another check.

Doyle’s arrest, however, was unrelated to his activities in Iowa and Minnesota. According to Hoffman, no formal charges were lodged against him by officials at the Iowa track where he was illegally occupying restricted areas. Doyle was arrested in response to a warrant issued in Nassau County, N.Y., the location of Sunrise Galleries, from which Doyle was alleged to have stolen and forged two checks worth $7,500. The charges were grand larceny and unlawful flight from prosecution.

On May 17, Doyle was extradited to New York. After being released on bail, he pleaded guilty to petty larceny. His sentencing, set for last Friday, was postponed.

Meanwhile, Alan Erlichman, president of Sunrise Galleries, claims he is paying off nearly $30,000 in art works he believes Doyle stole as a false representative of his firm. “Here this guy has ripped off a lot of people …. It’s unbelievable,” says Erlichman.

The other two parties named in Dent’s Rodin lawsuit have not filed criminal charges against Doyle. Dent alleges that Bruton Gallery acted in a “commercially unreasonable manner” in buying the Rodin from Doyle; Bruton has argued that Doyle was properly authorized to sell Dent’s Rodin. Dent accuses Anne Reichenbach, Doyle’s former girlfriend and alleged business associate, of being an accomplice in defrauding and stealing from him. In her cross-complaint against Doyle, she demands $55,400 (Reichenbach has indicated that the checks to Dent and other Doyle clients were from her account), plus damages and legal costs.

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Dent insists he was stifled in his attempts to charge Doyle as a criminal. Some parties, he notes, have refused to answer telephone calls and letters; others have directed him to the wrong figures. According to Dent, an agent in the FBI’s New York field division told him the U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia passed over his case because the amount of money he was seeking “wasn’t large enough. I was small potatoes.” The FBI’s New York branch declined to answer requests for comments.

POSTSCRIPT:  22 years after the above article was written, the Rodin appeared for sale at Christie’s in New York.  Chris Marinello, acting on behalf of Dent’s Estate, reached a confidential settlement with the Japanese consignor.