For those who are familiar with the work and life of the noted American painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, it is should not come as a surprise that eventually someone would come up with a book that tells more than the bibliographies published to date.
There were only two people who knew the commonly described as "recluse" O’Keeffe deep beneath the skin: Anita Pollitzer during O’Keeffe’s younger years, at the time she began her artistic career, and Herta H. Wittgenstein, who was a very close friend during her last two decades. The book Anita Pollitzer penned, in deference to Georgia O'Keeffe's wish that it not be published, never saw the light of day; instead, post-humously, the correspondence between those two women appeared in print.
The publication of Wittgenstein’s book, on the other hand, was delayed many years through devious means, for it delved into the dealings of two individuals, who became multi-millionaires at the expense of an aging, sight impaired and finally totally blind O’Keeffe. One is John Bruce Hamilton, who in the early 70‘s was a penniless drifter and who managed with shrewd calculations to get into the artist’s employ. He got hired to do odd chores, and within a few years, advanced himself to the position of major domo who literally had taken charge of all the painter’s affairs.
Rumors flourished through the American media that the octogenarian O’Keeffe and the by then known as Juan Hamilton, age thirty-something, had secretly gotten married.
Nobody knew, that G.O.K. had "given" him total power of attorney, and to this day, it is more than questionable, that the signator to this awesome document really knew what she had signed. Neither family nor friends had access to O’Keeffe. The door to her house in the small village of Abiquiu, New Mexico and access to her summer place at Ghost Ranch, a dozen miles away, were guarded by a single individual, namely Mr. Hamilton. He also answered her telephone or turned it off altogether, when he was not present.
The few people who were in O’Keeffe’s employ, but got their paycheck from Juan, were sworn to secrecy and if they were even accused of talking out-of-school, got fired on the spot. In a village where work is hard to find, it was an effective way of having control which lasted well till past the artist’s death in 1986. It was a well- kept secret how miserable the final years of O’Keeffe really had been.
Nobody had bothered to find out, or not dared to check into Mr. Hamilton’s newly found riches with the sole exception of the Department of Taxation in the State of New Mexico. They were quickly appeased though, by receiving some O’Keeffe art in trade, which ended up in the City’s Fine Art Museum. The car dealers did not care when the artist’s checks paid for a Mercedes, the BMW, and various other vehicles that Hamilton drove or gave away as presents. After all, they got titled and registered in O’Keeffe’s name.
Local realtors apparently took it for granted, that it was indeed the artist herself who wanted some of the highest priced listings. Only when the most expensive of all property deals got struck, not very long before O’Keeffe died, did a lone and lowly employee at the County Clerk’s office demand proof of Hamilton’s authority to act on the painter’s behest. It was only then that the existence of the document that gave him absolute and total power of O’Keeffe’s assets and all other legal power as well surfaced.
This was nearly seven years after it was allegedly and with full knowledge signed, and the one relative to whom G.O.K. was really close to, her sister Claudia had succumbed to a lengthy illness. Until then, nobody who reaped commission on cars or on real estate transactions had any interest to question Hamilton’s right to issue checks from O’Keeffe’s account. Neither did the stockbrokers question him when he sold off some of her holdings, they too made money in the process. Apparently, the insurance agents did not raise an eyebrow either, as to why a women whose blindness was a known fact in the community, would be listed as the primary driver on the numerous vehicles.
It does not take much imagination, to figure out, that sooner or later, a shrewd businessman would join forces with Hamilton who had only a few personal connections to people with cash on the ready for high prized artwork. It was a dealer in Santa Fe, about whose past the people around town to this day still only murmur, Gerald Peters, who jumped onto the bandwagon. He befriended Hamilton, who had taken up pottery in earlier times and promoted him as an artist of his own right. Not that the pony-tailed handsome O’Keeffe companion, (that was indeed how he described himself), needed the money, he simply strove for the reputation to be "his own man".
In turn, Peters became the exclusive dealer of O’Keeffe paintings, the market value of which were considerable, even back then. No work was sold for less than half a million dollars at that time and with each passing year, their price tags went higher and higher. In the process, Peters has not only become one of New Mexico’s wealthiest individuals, but in the process has opened galleries in New York and Dallas as well.
Juan Hamilton was named as the major beneficiary as well as executor in the Last Will and Testament and the accompanying Codicils which he put into Probate. The value of the estate was nearly 90 million dollars. Though in the end, after litigation initiated by family members and several museums, who charged him with undue influence of the testatrix, Hamilton settled out of Court with the provision that the record be sealed. What is clear and undisputed though, that he ended up with the lion share of the inheritance.
Had Wittgenstein not been forced into silence by the most treacherous means, by manipulation of the criminal justice system, Mr. Hamilton would have not only walked away without a dollar, but most likely would have ended up in jail.
In spite of the fact that the latest development in terms of O’Keeffe art work are not part of Wittgenstein’s book, it must be noted that recently it has come to light that not all works sold by or through Mr. Peters are what they were purported to be. Not long ago, the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, Missouri demanded a refund of 5.5 Million Dollars from Gerald Peters, because two dozen watercolors which had sold them years earlier as genuine O’Keeffe’s turned out to be fakes.
One might assume, that a man who considers himself as one of the foremost experts in terms of O’Keeffe works, and upon whose knowledge and word, several hundred million dollars worth of her drawings, paintings and sculptures had been already been bought from him, is not to be fooled. In addition, his friend and partner, Juan Hamilton, had also vouched for the authenticity of the images, collectively known as the Canyon Suite.
That greed is a strong motivator, is nothing new. The thirst for money and power that goes along with it, is not a phenomenon of our time. Exposure of such cases make headlines for a short time but are soon forgotten. By the same token however, any crime story well told and and the title of which features a famous and admired person, is an entirely different matter.
Furthermore, based on the popularity of the many books that deal with the art and life of O’Keeffe, it is clear that O’Keeffe’s Cast will have many readers. It is no surprise therefore that, some of the cast in the artist’s advanced age, would go to great length to prevent that this book arrives on the shelves, regardless that the prosecution of most crimes described are now barred due to expiration of statute.
The author had not one but several attacks on her life, she also spent time in prison. Without seeking pity, Wittgenstein describes what the lust for a fortune can lead to, in regard to her own existence and that of Georgia O’Keeffe.