In Birmingham, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit, Wendy Halsted Beard ran a small gallery specializing in 19th- and 20th-century photography. She’d taken the gallery over from her father, who opened it in 1969, dealing works by artists including Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, and August Sander. This week, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) raided Beard’s nearby home and a Florida space she had been leasing.
Since 2017, Beard had defrauded her clients of over 100 photographs worth a combined $1.6 million dollars.
The scheme was twofold: Beard never delivered buyers their art, and she consigned photographs without paying her consigners or returning their works. And in some cases, Beard returned replicas to her clients instead of the originals.
Wendy Halstead Gallery’s storefront closed in 2020, and Beard moved the operation into her home and also leased a showroom in Florida. The gallery’s listed phone number brings the caller to a default voicemail, and the website link on its Instagram page arrives at an unclaimed domain name. Hyperallergic was unable to reach Beard.
In 2022, some of Beard’s victims called the Birmingham Police Department to complain that she had not returned their consigned works. The department referred the case to the FBI, which identified “potentially dozens of victims,” according to the affidavit, which highlights several individual cases. Many of the gallerist’s victims were elderly, and in addition to blatant ghosting, Beard invented lies about her health, including a nonexistent lung transplant and a fictitious coma.
The affidavit outlines the story of Beard’s relationship with an 89-year-old consigner living with Alzheimer’s whose relative alerted authorities to potential theft. Among other offenses, Beard returned to him a different — and unsigned — copy of a work he had consigned to the gallery, an Ansel Adams photograph titled “Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain, Yosemite National Park, California” (c. 1948). The client’s original signed photograph was valued at $4,000 to $5,500, but the reproduction Beard returned to her client could be purchased from Yosemite’s Ansel Adams Gallery gift shop for $375.
In one especially high-value case, a client consigned an Ansel Adams photograph valued at $625,000 for a term of nine months, through December 2019. It was a massive print of Ansel Adams’s “The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park” (1942), a characteristically dramatic depiction of a Western landscape. Beard and her client agreed on a price of $685,000 with a 5% commission to the gallery. Though the contract expired, the client never got the work back.
Records show that Beard sold it for much less, and did not inform her client of the sale. In June 2020, a gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, officially purchased “The Tetons and the Snake River” for $440,000.
Beard’s client was left in the dark and did not receive a cent. He tried to contact her multiple times, and Beard eventually cited a long hospital stay, writing that she “got bumped up on the transplant list,” and sent emails from nonexistent assistants claiming that she was receiving a double lung transplant.
According to the FBI, Beard was never on the United Network for Organ Sharing’s list of donors or recipients.
In another case, a client purchased an Adams photograph titled “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941) for $73,000. Beard deposited her checks, but never sent the work. The client asked why, and on September 1 of this year, Beard replied that she had been in a “months-long coma.” But two weeks before, the FBI, who was already surveilling the gallerist, saw her leave her home and drive to a parking garage. She was “not physically impaired,” according to the affidavit.
The FBI says there are likely more victims who have yet to be interviewed. Beard was charged with mail and wire fraud, and some victims have reached out to the FBI to try to track down their unsold works.