A Michigan-based photography dealer has been charged with defrauding elderly collectors out of an estimated $1.6 million in a scheme where she allegedly faked serious illness and created phony employees, all to cheat consignors.
Wendy Halsted Beard of the Wendy Halsted Gallery in Birmingham, a suburb of Detroit, was charged with wire fraud and bank fraud in a U.S. District Court earlier this month in a convoluted, yearslong scheme that preyed largely on the elderly.
Beard, who inherited the well-established art gallery founded more than fifty years ago by her millionaire father, allegedly scammed seniors by taking their rare art on consignment, selling it and then keeping the profits. Her plot involved a mural-sized Ansel Adams photograph owned by an 82-year-old client. Beard allegedly sold the masterpiece for $440,000 without telling the owner and keeping the money.
When the owner of the photograph tried to get the picture back, the FBI says, Beard claimed she was in the hospital getting a double-lung transplant and was too sick to deal with the request. “According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there is no record of Beard ever being on a transplant list or the recipient of a donor organ,” the FBI said.
In total, more than one hundred fine art photographs were linked to the $1.6 million scheme, according to the FBI. The scope of the deception could be far greater.
Last week, the FBI issued a plea to the public, asking for its help in identifying “additional potential victims” who may have provided art to Beard and never got paid, or who bought art from her and never received the art.
Beard is alleged to have created fake email addresses of phony employees she pretended worked for her, all to mislead and deceive clients after selling photos without clients’ knowledge and keeping the money. Moreover, the FBI says, Beard sold artwork to other victims but never delivered the goods — even after they had paid Beard.
In one case, a client purchased an Adams photograph titled “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941) for $73,000. Beard deposited her checks, but never sent the work. The client asked why, and on September 1 of this year, Beard replied that she had been in a “months-long coma.” But two weeks before, the FBI, which was already watching Beard, saw her leave her home and drive to a parking garage. She was “not physically impaired,” according to the affidavit.
Among other victims, law enforcement said, is an 89-year-old man with Alzheimer’s Disease and a 69-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist.