In 1994, Los Angeles artist James Hayward dreamed of murdering an art collector. At the time he was broke and desperate to make a sale.
The dream went something like this: Hayward met his dealer, the famous Douglas Chrismas, at a collector’s lavish home. When he arrived he was surprised to see that the collector already owned one of his works – a heavy lead envelope that he had no memory of making or selling. “You’ve been warned, and often,” the dream version of Hayward’s wife, Sue, told him. Hayward got angry. He pulled a medieval ax from the mantelpiece and hacked at the Collector and his two bodyguards. The dream ended with Christmas standing stunned in pools of blood. Shortly after Hayward woke up — according to a short story he published in 2010 — Chrismas called and the artist recounted the dream. Undeterred, the fictionalized Chrismas told him to write it down: “I bet I can sell it for you.”
“It’s a dream. You can’t be blamed for a dream,” Hayward said when I first interviewed him over Christmas in 2016. “Doug being alive is the only proof we need that the art world is a civilized one.” place is.”
Douglas Chrismas, the founder of the legendary Los Angeles-based blue-chip Ace gallery and an early promoter of the likes of Richard Serra, Michael Heizer and Ed Ruscha, has often infuriated his peers. He moved to LA in 1966 and soon after opened his first gallery in the city.
Allegations have haunted him since at least the early 1970s. He is accused of making artists’ works, failing to return unsold artworks, withholding payments and engaging in financial mismanagement. A few years before Hayward had his vengeful dream, sculptor Donald Judd ran an ad art forum Charges against Ace with “falsely attributing” an exhibition to the artist. A decade earlier, Andy Warhol complained about missing payments from Christmas.
But none of the allegations ever seemed to work. For decades, despite Chrismas’ reputation, its roster teemed with sought-after artists and its galleries grew larger and more elaborate.
Even after years of bankruptcies, Christmas seemed untouchable. That was until last July, when the retailer was indicted on three counts of federal embezzlement. The next day, he was out on $50,000 bail and attending the Felix Art Fair at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. In May of this year, a federal court ordered Chrismas to pay $14.2 million in bankruptcy proceedings that have dragged on since 2013. With a federal trial scheduled for January that, after three delays, could land the dealer in jail if convicted, Chrismas could finally be lucky.
But the question of how Christmas lasted so long and how decades of allegations of defaults and missing artworks finally escalated to the current money laundering and embezzlement allegations speaks for the opacity of the art market and the millions of dollars sloshing around in it. For artists and art-world observers, Chrismas’ fall offers a remarkably full view behind a curtain that is seldom drawn so far back.