In his ca. 1990 Memorandum For Prosecutors, Judges and Juries Involved in Dali Art Fraud Cases, Ren Morse, President of The Salvador Dali Foundation and The Salvador Dali Museum, refers to, “The most flagrant case where a commissioned Dali subject was ripped off is the reprinting of certain watercolors from the illustrated book, Alice In Wonderland by Collectors Guild in collaboration with American Express.” He states that, “it was reportedly a successful five million dollar scam.”
Well, I have the rest of the story. I was the government’s expert in that case and traveled to both Washington and New York to work with the Federal Trade Commission on the investigation. In New York I examined Alice In Wonderland prints at both the American Express headquarters at the World Financial Center (across the street from the World Trade Center) and a warehouse in Mt. Vernon in Westchester County. It was at this latter location that I was accompanied by my eleven year old daughter who afterwards said to me and our FTC and FBI companions, “Those guys were really creepy. They were just like the Maffia.” The FBI agent replied that they were the Maffia.
In 1968, Salvador Dali painted twelve original gouaches to illustrate the Lewis Carroll classic. He was paid $5,000. Maecenas Press (a division of Random House) printed reproductions of the twelve watercolors as well as a drypoint and issued an edition of 2,800 portfolios.
The rights to the images were acquired by Max Munn of Collectors Guild, Ltd. and he cut a distribution deal with American Express who offered four of the reprinted images to cardholders in July, 1984. The AmEx brochure stated the prints were “original lithographs by Salvador Dali” and there were “no prior states of these original lithographs, and no prior editons.” The promotional mailing also said the images on Arches paper, “were signed by Salvador Dali before the lithographs were individually hand-pulled, numbered and custom-framed.”
I was able to prove that none of this was true. In his opinion on the case, Judge Pierre N. Level wrote, “The prints appear to have been signed by Dali, whereas in fact Dali never saw them or even knew they were being printed.” Collectors Guild agreed with the FTC to stop misrepresenting the prints and American Express eventually made refunds totaling about $2.5 million to cardholders.
OK, so what’s the rest of the rest of the story? American Express did some fancy footwork and in large measure avoided any legal responsibility. Their letters to cardholders who had bought and then questioned the prints are an interesting read. Early on, all assurances were made that the prints were fully original and legitimate. As the scheme unravelled, however, the responses waffle more and more, but never actually accept responsibility. In fact, American Express, expressing indignation at being fooled themselves, actually became a party to the action on the side of the Government against Collectors Guild. Not all purchasers of the bogus prints were contacted and reimbursed either.