> TELEPHONE US 212.355.5710

Michigan Gallerist Stole $1.6M From Clients

June 6, 2023
A black-and-white photograph of the winding Snake River in the foreground, with the Grand Teton mountains rising into the clouds in the background.

The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park by Ansel Adams

Have you ever been caught in a lie? Have you ever tried to get out of trouble by lying again to make the initial lie make sense? Perpetually evading responsibility can be exhausting and, in the case of one Michigan gallery owner, can lead to legal trouble. Wendy Beard, the operator of the Halstead Gallery in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, recently reached a deal with prosecutors after she got caught up in a web of her own untruths.

Wendy Beard had been under investigation by the FBI for several years when she was arrested in October 2022. According to prosecutors, Beard made it a habit of defrauding her own clients. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when she chose to scam photojournalist J. Ross Baughman. Baughman initially made a name for himself in 1977. At the age of 23, he became the youngest recipient of a journalism Pulitzer Prize for his photographs documenting the treatment of prisoners in the white minority-ruled apartheid state of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He was looking to sell part of his collection of photographs and prints through the Halstead Gallery, as that had been where he bought the first piece in his collection, a work by Diane Arbus. The gallery’s founder Thomas Halstead, who had sold him the Arbus, had since passed away, and the gallery was now in the hands of his daughter Wendy. Baughman consigned twenty pieces to the gallery, valued at around $40K, with the contract only lasting a year. After three years, Baughman had not received any money, nor had he received his collection back.

This was Beard’s way of conning people of their money and their art. She habitually received works on consignment but failed to notify the owners when the pieces sold. She also would receive payment for works and then conveniently forget to have them delivered before ghosting her clients entirely. Of course, this is no way to run a business, as people are bound to complain. To counter this, Beard decided to make up lie after lie to excuse all of the missing money and art that had seemingly disappeared. According to court documents, she created email addresses for employees she had entirely made up. She fabricated medical emergencies as excuses, including a double lung transplant on one occasion and a “months long coma” on another. Works consigned to the gallery that went unsold were not returned to their owners but went up on the walls of her home. Her most audacious stunt was when a client asked that she return their unsold Ansel Adams photograph Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain. However, when they got the photo back, the owner noticed Adams’s signature was now missing. By looking through PayPal records, the FBI discovered that Beard bought a $375 print from the Ansel Adams Gallery website and chose to pass it off as the signed original. It is unknown whether she kept the original photograph or sold it without notifying the owner. Ansel Adams photographs were commonly consigned to the gallery, including the most valuable work in this affair. One of Beard’s clients had consigned the photo The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, along with several other works, with Beard valuing the collection at $900K. Beard later sold The Tetons and the Snake River to a gallery in Wyoming for $440K, pocketing every penny instead of charging her expected 5% commission. The photograph currently belongs to a collector in Idaho, who purchased it for $685K.

The FBI criminal complaint names five victims, but there are doubtless many more. One anonymous client only learned about Beard’s shady dealings when news reporters broke the story on television. The FBI estimates Beard stole around one hundred photographs and prints as well as about $1.6 million from her clients. Beard is now being charged with wire fraud, and facing a prison sentence of up to twenty years. If she pleads guilty, she must pay back the money she stole from her clients. But it is unknown if any of Beard’s victims will have their art returned to them.