Art History 101
“Good morning, Dr. Johnson. How’s your day going so far?”
Eddie Spenser, the owner of Marlowe’s Book Store, greeted me like he had every morning for the last ten years.
You see, for the past decade (could it possibly be that long?), right after my cappuccino and croissant at Lakota, I’ve stopped in his shop on the way to my office to prepare for a class or for an endless round of meetings with students, other faculty members in the Department of Art History and Archeology , or nosy administrators inquiring about progress toward our “Standards of Excellence” goals. I’ve found the fifteen or twenty minutes I’ve allowed myself to pick through the stacks of books that constitute Eddie’s merchandising system have had an effect not unlike what some commuters report about their drive to work: it clears the mind for the day ahead.
An unfortunate consequence of my daily ritual, however, is that I almost always leave with one or two books — some gems, some tailings. This morning was no different, but I’m not yet sure what the outcome of my purchase will be. You see the book that I bought, and which I just finished reading, is entitled “James Henry Johnson: The Life and Crimes of a Master Art Thief.”
My full name, curiously, is also James Henry Johnson.
“Eddie, do you know anything about this book?” I asked, hoping that he could tell me something about its source.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Johnson, I don’t remember buying that one. Where did you find it?”
“It was in that new stack up by the biography shelves,” I said.
I was more than a little surprised that Eddie couldn’t identify the book. In spite of the studied chaos of the store, he seemed to know every book that came in or went out. Want a book about Napoleon’s horse, Marengo? He could tell you about four he had had over the years and just where to find the remaining one in the three floor of his shop. Looking for a book on trout fishing on the Flathead River in Montana? Chances are he had two down in the sports and recreation section in the basement. Need a textbook for Dr. Formsby’s English Lit class? Yes, he had that and just about any other textbook that the faculty of the University of Missouri might be using this semester.
“The author is Grant Fields. Can you find him in your database?”
Eddie’s “database” was a massive card catalog he had created over the forty years he owned Marlowe’s. A few years ago, a student in library science offered to computerize his index as a project for a class, but Eddie declined, not because he is a Luddite who eschews computers, but because he believes his system is faster and more accurate, a belief that has been proved correct a couple of times when other students have come in with their laptops and challenged him to a book search.
“Give me a second. Yes, right here. ‘Grant Fields (b. 1934, d. 2009). The author of fifteen biographies of famous criminals, including Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow, Machine Gun Kelly, and James Henry Johnson. Fields taught at Stephens College from 1962 to 2004.’
“Now that’s odd. Why did I forget about him? I’ve had most of his books at one time or another and I remember him coming in to buy now and then.” Eddie seemed perplexed and a little embarrassed by his lapse in memory. “Say, is this criminal James Henry Johnson a relative of yours?”
“I’ve never heard of him before,” I replied. “I suppose we all have black sheep in our families, but this one must be from an entirely different branch of the family tree.”
I handed Eddie ten dollars for the book and headed to my office. It was a beautiful spring day, as spring days often are on college campuses. There is nothing like a stroll through Peace Park when the air is warm and the daffodils are in bloom. We had suffered through a particularly brutal winter in Columbia and everyone was glad to be able to walk from the Heidelberg to the Medical School after breakfast or from Jesse Hall to Booche’s for lunch without getting frostbite.
When I arrived at Pickard Hall, I found a note on my door from a student who was scheduled for an 8:30 appointment. Apparently, she had come down with some virulent disease and had been advised by “someone at the Student Health Center” to stay home for a couple of days to heal. Likely the “someone” was another student who decided that the weather was just too good to waste on appointments with advisors and had convinced her of the same.
Since I had a free half hour, I decided to open the book I had just purchased and see who this other James Henry Johnson was. Chapter 1 recounted the daring theft of Cezanne’s “The Boy in the Red Vest” from a museum in Switzerland. The painting has never been recovered, but all the evidence pointed to Johnson, who was in Zurich at the time, according to his passport, which was examined by the police upon his short detention. He was released for lack of evidence, as apparently he was many times in his career. Zurich is one of my favorite cities and oddly enough, I was there at the same time attending an international conference on the “sound poems” of Kurt Schwitters. My specialty is the visual literature of Dada, which my colleague, Myrna Samuels refers to as Dadature.
As I was finishing Chapter 1, Lois, the department administrative assistant knocked on my door and asked if it would be a problem if Robby North rescheduled his meeting with me (to discuss the faculty picnic planned for the end of the semester; not a big priority by any means). Robby (Doctor Robert North, professor of Ancient Art), she said, had come down with some bug and wouldn’t be in today.
“There seems to be something going around,” I said.
“Yes, I think I’m coming down with it, too,” Lois said, laughing. “I think it’s spring fever. I could barely get my kids off to school this morning. They were both complaining of headaches. They’ve never had a headache in their lives.”
Well, with Dr. North out of the way, I had another hour before my first class. Perhaps enough time to read another chapter or two to see what my doppelgänger had gotten himself into in times past.
Chapter 2 began at the beginning: Johnson’s birth and early childhood in northwest Missouri, in the little town of Skidmore. You might remember that Skidmore was the scene of a series of crimes back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, attributed to one Ken Rex McElroy. For a period of eight or nine years, McElroy terrorized the town with assaults, arson and robberies. He came to be known as the “bully of Skidmore.” One day, as he sat in his truck outside a bar in town, he was shot twice and killed. Although there were as many as fifty potential witnesses to the crime, no one came forward to identify the killer or killers. Local and Federal investigations failed to uncover the person responsible for the murder and the case remains officially unsolved and to this day and no one in town has talked about it.
While all of this was widely known at the time, it was of particularly interest to me because I grew up in the next town over, in Maryville. It turns out that I was born the same year as the other James Henry Johnson, but in all the time I lived there, I never heard his name mentioned. According to his biography, Johnson was a gifted but troubled youth. His parents divorced when he was two and he was mainly reared by his grandmother. His only contact with his father was when he was sixteen. Johnson was called out of class to identify his father’s body, the senior Johnson having been shot and killed in a hunting accident. His mother showed up at the coroner’s office at the same time, but she was too drunk to even recognize her own son, let alone the husband who had abused and abandoned her fourteen years before.
By all accounts, Johnson was a good student and talented artist, but beginning about that time, he started having brushes with law enforcement. At first, his run-ins were minor violations: underage drinking and driving, fights after football games, shop lifting at the convenience store in Skidmore, but by the time he was eighteen, his escapades had escalated to more serious crimes. Two days after his graduation from high school, he was arrested for breaking into the bookstore on the Northwest Missouri State College campus and stealing $200 worth of art supplies. He was sentenced to thirty days in the county jail. His arrest resulted in his scholarship to Northwest being rescinded and his future becoming even cloudier.
My growing-up years were a bit different from his, but I had some of the same difficulties. My parents also divorced when I was quite young and I went to live with my grandparents in St.Joseph. I imagine my interest in art and architecture developed in St.Joe, as it is call by the natives. My grandparents lived in a sprawling old house on North 5th Street that had once been owned by Eugene Field. I used to wander around Hall Street, just north of the downtown, marveling at the ornate houses, especially at Christmas time when they all seemed to glow from within. The light coming through the stained glass windows made them look like they were encrusted with diamonds and rubies. Local legend, or perhaps just gossip, held that the windows in one of the houses actually had gems embedded. In any case, those windows inspired some of my earliest drawings.
My artistic talent was recognized by one of my teachers at Lafayette High School, Miss Lilian West, who encouraged me to pursue a college degree in the field. I was fortunate to earn a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute and completed my BFA and MFA there. What followed was a series of teaching jobs on the east coast and sabbaticals in the art capitals of Europe. Finally, I settled here in Columbia and have lived in the Grasslands for these ten years. It is, all in all, an idyllic life. I teach and paint and listen to the roar from the football stadium on crisp fall afternoons.
Meanwhile, the other James Henry Johnson was completing a five year term in the Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery, having held up a convenience store in Brookfield (convenience stores being easy targets at that time, the early ‘70s; security cameras were something that were only written about in science fiction then). While in prison, Johnson apparently found his real calling, robbery being a risky and uncertain business at best. He started taking art history classes through an outreach program from Washington University in St.Louis and painting portraits of his fellow prisoners in the little free time that was available to him. A local art gallery owner happened to see one of his paintings at a prison art show and arranged to exhibit his work in her shop. Several of his works (in addition to portraits, Johnson painted scenes of life inside the prison) sold over the course of a year and the gallery owner set up a bank account in his name so when he was released, he had a $3000 nest egg to begin his new life.
I had just started reading Chapter 3 when Lois again knocked on my door to tell me that my class was set to begin in half an hour, she having sensed that I was losing track of time. Lois keeps everyone in this department on our toes; most of us exhibit the absent-minded professor syndrome to a T. Today’s lecture was on the embedded poetry in Francis Picabia’s painting “L’oeil cacodylate,” a soliloquy I’ve given a couple of dozen times or more and one that never fails to put at least one or two students to sleep. I’ve always told myself that it is not my words that induce somnolence, but the stuffy lecture hall in Pickard that does the trick.
Today, my lecture managed to put about half the class in a state of untroubled torpor and I must admit that there were a couple of times when I thought that my droning was going to make me drop off, too. While I was giving voice to the genius of Dada, my mind was back in my office, wondering what was going to happen to James Henry Johnson in Chapter 3, and 4, and 5, and…
Mercifully, I reached the end of my disquisition and the accompanying sixty slides (despite the prodding of our new, young department chair, most of the faculty in Art History still use a slide projector for our lectures; at one point, Dr. Royce even refused to have the ancient projectors repaired in hopes that that would force us to adopt modern digital technology, but Dr. Warner thwarted that scheme by buying six nearly-new projectors on eBay, which we all applauded, but we also sensed that one day, that equipment would suddenly disappear and we’d be stuck with pixilated Paladinos, Picassos, and Poussins), dismissed the still-conscious students (being careful not to awaken the others), and hurried back to my office and the book. A quick check of my desk calendar indicated that I had no other appointments for the day, so I settled in with a cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot) to read.
Chapter 3 was entitled “The First Forgery.” It seems that Johnson had picked up a few skills in prison besides portraiture: he had become adept at copying art from any period in history. While he didn’t have access to authentic materials, he was able to mimic the look and feel of a Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Raphael, Cezanne, Thomas Eakins, Manet, Schiele, Whistler, or Courbet. His paintings of Missouri scenes would fool even the most knowledgeable Benton expert and more than one person immediately recognized an undiscovered Rothko he created. Now the Missouri State Penitentiary is not known as the place to make connections in the art forgery underworld, but inmates there know people who know people who know people. Once on the outside, Johnson used his bank account to begin purchasing old canvasses, pigments and the binders he needed to begin his new career. His first fake was a Titian created for a dealer in Minneapolis who had a client who had more money than art sense. The dealer created the provenance for the painting and had it “authenticated” by a supposed “curator” at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Minneapolis dealer also connected Johnson to associates in New York, London and Paris who had clients looking for works by specific artists, paintings that had long before disappeared from sight or works in the style of a particular artist, works that had never actually existed. Johnson was well compensated for his efforts and they took him to Europe, South America and the Far East. While “on assignment” in Vienna, he was approached about another type of activity; his client wanted him to steal a painting by Cezanne from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The client had a large collection of Cezannes (most of which Johnson recognized as forgeries, a couple of which he had painted himself, but he decided not to reveal that in case there was some question later about the one that he stole) and wanted to add a specific piece entitled “Auvers-sur-Oise at Dusk.” The description of the theft was the subject of Chapter 4 and it showed how Johnson gradually shifted from art forgery to art theft.
As I read of his exploits in subsequent chapter, an unease came over me. Many of the locations from which Johnson stole art were places I had visited, sometimes on vacation but more often as part of a conference I was attending or lecture I was presenting. I was in London in 1978 when Johnson stole a Turner from the National Maritime Museum. I attended a conference in Paris in 1981 at the same time that Johnson took three Renoirs from the Musee de Monmartre, just two block from my hotel. Johnson and I were both in Barcelona in 1994 when a Picasso went missing from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. My lectures on Dada in Berlin, Tokyo, Tbilisi, Georgia and Mantova, Italy incredibly happened at the same time that paintings, prints, engravings, etchings, and photographs disappeared from collections, galleries and museums in those cities. Was the other James Henry Johnson following me around the globe? Was I somehow following him?
And then about 2000, he just disappeared from the map (oddly, that was just about the time that I came to the University of Missouri from Yale). During the ‘70s, ‘80s and late ‘90s, he came close to being caught several times, but managed to slip through the fingers of the art crimes units of Interpol, Scotland Yard and the FBI. Where had he gone? Why had he given up his spectacular and, one imagines, very lucrative career? Had he been killed by a disgruntled client? The last chapter of the book speculated on his whereabouts (was he living a quiet life back in Skidmore, unrecognized after all these years?), but concludes that unless a crime with his “fingerprints” occurs we may never know what happened to one of the most famous criminals of all time.
As I closed the book, I glanced at the clock and saw that it was already 4:15. I stood up to gather a few things to work on at home just as Lois knocked on the door.
“Dr. Johnson, there are a couple of men here to see you. They say they are from the FBI.”
Startled, I knocked the book I had spent the day reading off the desk and it landed with the back of the dust jacket facing up. I had not noticed it before, but there, in black and white, was a photo of the master art forger and thief, James Henry Johnson. It was my picture.
© Charles St.Clair, 2014