The private jets made Robert De Niro nervous. The Salander-O’Reilly Gallery was putting on a show in Rome that included his father’s paintings. The gallery’s owner, Larry Salander, told him they’d fly to Italy in a private jet. Mr. De Niro wasn’t sure whose jet it was — he vaguely thought it belonged to Benucci, the Roman gallery hosting the event that would later claim ownership of his father’s paintings
“I did think it was a little easy for him to say, yeah, we’ll do that,” Mr. De Niro said last Friday at Manhattan Criminal Court in Lower Manhattan. He raised a finger. “I just sort of made note of that. Because it is expensive.”
Later in his rapid-fire 40-minute testimony, he made a trademark frown and displayed something like the paranoid ticks of Jimmy the Gent in the last few scenes of GoodFellas. “There was another time when I went to Portugal, and I saw I had a plane and Larry had a plane,” he said. “It just didn’t seem to add up to me.”
On trial was Leigh Morse, the former Salander-O’Reilly director charged with pocketing $77,000 from the sale of two paintings from the estate of Robert De Niro Sr. She’s also charged with general involvement in the gallery’s cons, but her alleged crimes are relatively minor in the scope of the frauds that emanated from Salander-O’Reilly. Nevertheless, her trial has become a circus. That’s partly because Mr. Salander himself, who last year pleaded guilty to defrauding victims of $120 million and is serving a sentence of 6 to 16 years at Mid-State Correctional Facility, upstate near Utica, never had one.
In court, the private jets have been a constant theme. Gallery bookkeeper Maryann Cohen brushed off a question about Mr. Salander’s huge travel bills, saying he “did like private jets.” Former gallery vice president Andrew Kelly described to jurors how Mr. Salander would pack the aisles of his jet with works of art, shuttling them back from Europe as part of his quixotic quest to corner the Renaissance art market–or as Mr. Salander termed it, “a mission from God to enlighten the world.” Mr. Kelly quit after a screaming match with Mr. Salander about a mechanical repair for the jet.
The prosecutors constantly reference the gallery’s excesses, as if the state is getting something out of its system. Their voices are at once incredulous and filled with disgust: “And was this … usual for Mr. Salander?” But this is not the only day in court for the Salander scandal. Mr. Salander is being sued from all sides–by the families whose estates he managed and by the business partners he dragged through arcane schemes. The lawsuits overlap, to such a degree that some victims are suing the organizations that nominally represent them. Nobody knows who owns what, and all parties are infuriated
Friday was Mr. De Niro’s show, and he knew it. He held his face in his hands, considered the questions, worked his jaw as he put forth his recollections. Asked by the prosecution to identify Ms. Morse, Mr. De Niro turned his right hand into a gun, thrust it at her and recoiled. Ms. Morse, a blond woman wearing a teal tunic and boots, hardly looked at him, though she was the only one in the room who wasn’t transfixed. His last words on the stand were an attempt to engage the defense lawyer without having been questioned: “I’m going to suggest …” The judge shook his head and signaled for him to stop. Mr. De Niro put up his hands as if to say “Whoops!” and smiled.
During the lunch recess, and before Mr. De Niro’s testimony, photographers and cameramen camped around the side entrance to the building. They discussed why Mr. De Niro blows past them at his own red carpets.
“He actually has an inferiority complex,” said one paparazzo, “and you know what I think it is? His diction.”
“How’s it goin’, brother?” said one detective to another.
“Are you talkin’,” he replied in a drawl, as he walked into the building without pausing, “to me?” The respondent, wearing Oakleys, would later be seen escorting Mr. De Niro into court.
By the time the actor arrived, the court was filled to capacity. Most of the gawkers appeared to be junior staffers looking for something to do on a hot Friday afternoon, but there were a few middle-aged women, and at least one bodybuilder.
“My name is Robert De Niro,” he said for the record upon his entrance. “I live in Manhattan.” The audience swooned. But he lost some of the throng when he started talking about frames, peering over his glasses as three girls in black dresses left just 10 minutes into his testimony.
Mr. De Niro’s presence at the trial was no stunt. He had worked closely with Mr. Salander and the gallery. After the death of Mr. De Niro’s father–a bohemian Figurative Expressionist who ran with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller and Tennessee Williams–Mr. Salander held a reception at his gallery, where Mr. De Niro delivered a tearful speech. Asked early on by the prosecution why he’d decided to allow the gallery to handle his father’s estate, he said that his father was “a little cynical” about certain dealers and that if he liked Mr. Salander, “I said that’s good enough for me.”