A Lost Picasso in East Hampton? Young Huckster Asking $900,000

The word is out all over the Hamptons: Gypsy Boy is back in town.

A short notice in Dan’s Papers proclaimed the existence of a rare Picasso oil painting from 1898, supposedly discovered at a Barcelona flea market and now on sale at the Vered Gallery in East Hampton for $900,000.

Johnny Cossa, a 24-year-old assistant at the Vered Gallery, led me into the room. There, propped up on a wooden box and lit by a small spotlight, was Gypsy Boy , the purported Picasso. The nude adolescent figure in the painting looked contemplative. Mr. Cossa looked ecstatic.

“The man who found it does this sort of thing,” Mr. Cossa said. “He goes looking for a painting and then he finds it. He goes away for five years at a time and then comes back with … with this!”

There is a very great possibility that Gypsy Boy is indeed the real thing. But Pablo Picasso’s pre-1900 works, before the familiar Harlequin period, are always problematic for scholars and collectors-they’re difficult to authenticate, difficult to price. People like to see a mention of any given lost painting in Picasso’s correspondence or diaries or evidence from the sketchbooks, things that haven’t been discovered in this case. And Gypsy Boy , apparently painted when Pablo was 17 years old, has something else keeping it out of the generally accepted Picasso canon: Unlike many other works from the same period, it’s not signed.

So the Vered Gallery will have to do some pretty fancy salesmanship before separating a wealthy collector from $900 grand-especially since other signed Picasso paintings from the same period sell from anywhere between $75,000 and $300,000.

Mr. Cossa handed over a brochure with several interesting, if dubious, claims: that the painting is “being considered for acquisition by both the Museu Picasso in Barcelona and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.” That the man who found the painting in a flea market took it directly to Josep Palau i Fabre, the famed Picasso scholar in Barcelona, who gave his stamp of approval immediately. That Picasso’s mistress and the mother of two of his children, Françoise Gilot, a great artist in her own right, had also seen Gypsy Boy and had found “that the painting was a Picasso and an important one.” That Marina Picasso had also supplied “a letter of authenticity.”

Why is Marina Picasso, the artist’s granddaughter, involved?

“Why, she’s in charge of the estate!” Mr. Cossa said with authority.

And not Claude, Maya or Paloma Picasso, the artist’s children, who usually authenticate such works?

“No,” he replied. “They have nothing to do with it.”

The charming Mr. Cossa made another claim about Gypsy Boy : “This is the only oil painting of the period!” But any art history major knows there are other Picasso oil paintings from the late 1890′s.

The Indiana Jones of Art?

What’s going on here? And out of all the art galleries in the world, how did a potentially important find like Gypsy Boy make its way to an obscure shop tucked snugly in an alley off East Hampton’s Main Street? Young Mr. Cossa is quite willing to tell the whole tale. Last summer, he said, he met a mysterious collector named Enrique Garcia-Herraiz who just happened into the Vered Gallery …

“What he had done-his interests are the same as my interests, he’s just much further along in his endeavors than I am,” Mr. Cossa said. “In that way, when he talks about these obscure periods of Picasso, I know what he’s talking about. When he came back to the East End, we spent a lot of time going over things. I found out about his discoveries and what he was really like and what kind of world he lives in.”

This mystery man, said Mr. Cossa, likes to keep a low profile and would prefer not to be interviewed. According to Mr. Cossa, Mr. Garcia-Herraiz told some wild tales of hunting for masterpieces, saying that one of his biggest finds was a painting by Francisco de Zurbarán. The Zurbarán, added Mr. Cossa, ended up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean after a cargo plane owned by the Marcos family went down.

In 1991, Mr. Garcia-Herraiz-according to Mr. Cossa-unearthed Gypsy Boy at a flea market when he saw it lumped in with other Catalan school paintings. Immediately, he rushed to tell the scholar, Mr. Palau, who authenticated it and called Marina Picasso for her approval as well. After that, Mr. Cossa said, Mr. Garcia-Herraiz hoped to place the painting in the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.

“He would rather see it there than make a lot of money from it,” Mr. Cossa added. “He’s like that.”

He added that the painting was also supposed to be the centerpiece of last year’s Early Picasso show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.-” but it was Enrique who withdrew it at the last minute,” Mr. Cossa said.

In a second interview a few days later, over coffee at the Park Avenue apartment of Vered Gallery co-owner Janet Lehr, Mr. Cossa was holding forth: “I pity artists a little bit because they have to do this. This is the road they musssssst go down.” He gesticulated with a sweep of his arms. “I was into restoration, painting with a tiny brush before this. That made me interested in where the art came from, who owned it. That people enjoyed these things in their own homes, not just museums. This is an adventure.”

Without hesitation, Mr. Cossa can reel off a hundred reasons why Gypsy Boy is an important Picasso-how it’s a study for future paintings and a result of even earlier sketches. “Look at the hands!” he said, referring to the Picasso-esque fingers. “This is all you need.”

And what is his art background, exactly? “I’ve been in interested in art for 15 years,” Mr. Cossa said. (That is, since he was 9.) “When I began to paint.”

Mr. Cossa has a very nice rap, but his story doesn’t hold together all that well upon examination.

Francoise Gilot, who spells her name with one “l” (and not two, as the Vered Gallery’s brochure would have it), denied ever having seen Gypsy Boy or meeting anyone connected with it.

“Fakes spring like mushrooms after the rain,” she said. “I don’t know if this is a fake, but I never, ever get involved. Only my son Claude and the Picasso Administration can verify whether or not it is a Picasso.”

Ms. Gilot does recall something that could be in Gypsy Boy ‘s favor, however: Early on, Picasso had a young Gypsy friend, and many years later, in the 30′s, a thief stole several early paintings from the artist’s mother. But she said she would never base an authentication on anecdotes.

The museums aren’t going with Mr. Cossa’s claims, either. Directly contradicting the Vered Gallery brochure, the Museu Picasso in Barcelona said in a faxed statement: “The Museu Picasso has never considered the acquisition of this painting.” Further, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery refused to comment. What about the signed letters from them requesting Gypsy Boy for the 1997 Early Picasso show? A Boston Museum spokesman said only: “We send letters out like that all the time.”

Several others who specialize in Picasso have not been consulted: William Rubin, the Museum of Modern Art’s Picasso expert, for instance, is on holiday in the south of France. Arne Glimcher, whose Pace Wildenstein Gallery has represented the Picasso family for years, is in Little Rock, Ark., directing a movie.

Said Ms. Lehr: “MoMA is an interesting idea. But they’re more involved in their building fund right now, bricks and mortar.” As for Mr. Rubin?” He doesn’t like us,” said Mr. Cossa. “We’re not big enough for him.”

But the Vered Gallery brochure includes one mistake that actually helps make the case that Gypsy Boy is a genuine Picasso. It seemed foolish of Mr. Cossa to boast of the granddaughter, Marina Picasso, having authenticated the painting-but a close look at the signature on the certificate shows it is that of Maya Picasso.

Maya Picasso is one of the Picasso children who give the family’s stamp of approval on lost works out of an office on Place Vendôme, Paris. (The other Picassos who work in the office were sailing in the Greek islands and could not be reached for comment.) When it was pointed out that the signature on the certificate of authenticity is actually that of Maya Picasso, not Marina Picasso, Mr. Cossa said: “Oops! That was a goof! I was staring at the signature so long it just became Marina.”

Mistakes like that one, which could cast doubt on the unsigned work, could risk the wrath of the gallery’s owner, Ruth Vered, who once served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Army. There are few Hamptonites who wouldn’t recognize Ms. Vered from the society circuit or from pictures in local newspapers and magazines. Twenty-five years ago, she emigrated from Israel with her children to East Hampton. Vered, as she likes to be called ( à la Cher and Madonna) is a Hamptons character known for her leather pants, Italian eyeglasses and her year-round tan. Until recently, her gallery showed local artists. Then, with the influx of Hollywood money into the Hamptons, Vered merged her operations with Manhattan photography dealer Janet Lehr. Gradually, Vered Gallery began to offer Picassos, Chagalls and other big-ticket items. But in all cases, the work was either marginally interesting or part of an edition. High quality, but not earth-shattering.

Enter Johnny Cossa, who started working at the gallery two years ago. Mr. Cossa, originally from Chatham, N.J., said he is a graduate of Syracuse University, where he studied some art but majored in communications.

The Mysterious Collector

And now we come to Gypsy Boy ‘s mysterious owner, Enrique Garcia-Herraiz. He is not really some Indiana Jones of the art world, as Mr. Cossa would have it, but an art writer and the former head of the Spanish National Tourist Office in New York.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Garcia-Herraiz, who is 70, said he did consign Gypsy Boy to the Vered Gallery, but he disputes nearly everything in the brochure as well as Mr. Cossa’s statements about him. For one thing, he said, he did not find the painting at a flea market. The truth is more mundane: He bought it at an auction for about 30,000 pesetas, or $200. The original owner of Gypsy Boy discovered it in a drawer of a furniture store.

Mr. Garcia-Herraiz faxed a statement: “I never met Francoise Gilot, never offered the painting to the Picasso museum in Barcelona, nor to the Boston Fine Arts, and I can’t understand what is going on anymore.” He added that he is not the one who withdrew the painting from the National Gallery of Art’s 1997 show. The museum itself, he said, retracted its offer to show the painting without explanation.

Mr. Garcia-Herraiz is the man who got Maya Picasso’s signature on that certificate of authenticity; he is also the man who brought Gypsy Boy to the scholar, Mr. Palau. He said Mr. Palau believes it is genuine, but that a feud between him and the director of the Barcelona museum has led to the confusion that surrounds the painting.

By the way, what about that Zurbaran at the bottom of the sea? “The Zurbaran was sold to a New York dealer for the Marcoses and was destroyed in a fire!” said Mr. Garcia-Herraiz.

So who’s to blame for this Picasso mess-is it Johnny Cossa? No, said Ms. Lehr of the Vered Gallery: “Everything we know is what Enrique told Johnny. He saw our materials before they were printed. He promulgated this.”

Mr. Garcia-Herraiz added that Gypsy Boy ‘s residency at the Vered Gallery represents its second stop in New York. In 1996, six months before Maya Picasso gave her blessing, the collector arranged to have it shown at Kazuhito Yoshii’s gallery on West 57th Street. Mr. Yoshii said he’s still not certain if Gypsy Boy is a Picasso: “There’s no way of knowing. Palau is the expert, but even that is not 120 percent proof.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Garcia-Herraiz believes he’s going to see some money from Gypsy Boy one of these days. “The painting has to be judged on its own merits,” he said. “In due time, when someone really studies it, I think it will finally sell.”