Last week’s episode of This American Life (“Picture Show”) set the art world abuzz with a tale of an unusual — and apparently fairly widespread — scheme that contemporary artists have been roped into.
The focus of the story is Schandra Singh, who recounts how a mysterious man in London sent her a letter telling her how fond of her work his son was — his son is autistic, he said, and also an artist. Touched by this connection to her work, she communicated with “Benjamin,” and received several drawings in the mail by his son “Anthony” (“Totally insane looking,” “Sort of stick figures of this man with his face with his mouth open”), as well as a note saying that he would love to own one of her works. “I’m thinking,” she explained on TAL, “why don’t I just do a trade with him?”
She ended up sending a drawing to London worth $1,000 to $2,000. That was roughly two years ago. A few months ago, when the incident came up with former Yale grad school colleague Baker Overstreet, they realized that he had received an almost identical letter, had received some of Anthony's drawings, and had been considering making an identical trade. (“Did you get a box of chocolates?” she asked Overstreet, adding, “He just stared at me with this funny face.”) Like Singh, Overstreet’s art had been acquired by Charles Saatchi, and been featured on the Saatchi website.
What was behind the strange coincidence? A writer and producer from TAL hopped on a plane to London where they hunted down the Benjamin from the letter. During an interview at his house, it becomes clear that he has accumulated a large collection through trades with artists on behalf of his son, though he remains evasive about just how many artists have swapped works. Was he conning artists with a hard luck tale, attempting to amass a valuable art collection? Did his son actually have a personal connection with the works of all the painters who were sent what amounts to a form letter?
Benjamin explains to the reporters that he considers the practice of swapping work a common practice among artists. “We’re not doing anything different from what they’re doing amongst themselves,” he explained on TAL. “But probably, we’re breaking into their circle in an unconventional manner.” After some dodging, Benjamin is able to verify that he really does have a son named Anthony, who is apparently really an artist and really does suffer from some form of autism.
The final twist is that, presented with the balance of the evidence, Singh and the other artists in the story seem at peace with the transaction. So, is it or isn’t it a scam?
“I sort of felt like they were ganging up on him,” Overstreet told ARTINFO over the phone yesterday on his reaction to the show. “I thought the story was well done, but it was never my intention to go after [Benjamin]. I was a little iffy about it. I didn’t feel there was enough evidence, really.”
When ARTINFO talked to him, he had in fact just stopped in to Fredericks & Freiser to talk to his art dealer Andrew Freiser and “fill him in on [the This American Life story].” As for what he plans on sending to Benjamin in the future, Overstreet was undecided. “I haven’t really thought about it,” he said.
Unlike Overstreet, however, who had never received anything like this letter before, his dealer was familiar with the ploy. “One of our other artists had gotten this letter,” Freiser told ARTINFO. “The last one was about a year ago.” Though he couldn’t recall which artist it was sent to, five of his artists are in Saatchi’s collection. (Zak Smith told ARTINFO that the request sounded like something he'd gotten, though he couldn't remember exactly — but then, he gets a lot of strange mail.)
“I’m not averse to passing it on even though it always hits me as a scam,” Freiser said. “We get a lot of emails.” In fact, he says, over the years, he's also gotten requests for artists’ shoes for a “shoe museum,” and requests for index cards bearing artists’ signatures for an “index card museum.” “You can see why we don’t pay a lot of attention to these."