Editor’s note: No one captures the action-adventure ethos of the early desert artists better than Marjorie Reed, best known for her paintings of the Butterfield Overland Stage. You can learn more about Reed from Gary Fillmore, author of All Aboard: The Life and Work of Marjorie Reed, at his talk in Borrego Springs February 14, 2020. (Info below.)
While often associated with Anza-Borrego and Julian, Marjorie Reed could also be considered one of the Cathedral City artists. In the early 1950s, she lived in an apartment next to the now-defunct Pink Burro Cafe. She undoubtedly crossed paths with Agnes Pelton, Christina Lillian, R. Brownell McGrew and other artists active in the small community. As an introduction to the swashbuckling heroine, here is Gary Fillmore’s equally swashbuckling account of an art world crime caper involving a missing mural:
“When I was in high school my mother painted three murals for the Argonaut Insurance Building in Menlo Park,” the woman seated across the table explained.
It was the spring of 2007. The woman telling the story was Judy Morris, Marjorie Reed’s only daughter. We were at her northern California home where I was interviewing her for my first book, All Aboard! The Life and Work of Marjorie Reed.
“I was with her at the time. It was during Christmas break in 1954,” Morris continued. “I spent almost two weeks in a nearby hotel room while mom worked on the murals in the lobby. After she finished she gave me $100 and we went on a shopping spree in San Francisco. That was a lot of money back then.”
I nodded in agreement.
She handed me three transparencies. “These are slides of the murals. You can take those with you. You should also call Argonaut Insurance. The paintings might still be there.”
We were wrapping up what had been a nearly three hour interview. I thanked her for the slides, coffee and cookies. Then I told her I would see what I could find out. However I distinctly remember thinking: “Still there? Not likely. That was over fifty years ago. California just changes too fast. My guess is the entire building isn’t even there anymore.”
So I confess to feeling a lack of urgency on the subject when I returned home.
As it turned out I didn’t need to be proactive. Two weeks later I received a phone call from an individual who identified himself as a member of a group of investors who had just purchased the Argonaut Insurance Building in Menlo Park.
“There were three large Marjorie Reed murals in the lobby. They were painted on canvas which was glued to the wall. We were able to remove all three of them. They just peeled right off all the plaster, completely intact.”
He had contacted me after researching Reed on the internet. “You seem to know more about this artist than anyone else.”
“Other than her children that’s probably the case,” I agreed. “Where are the murals now?”
“The building is pretty much completely empty now. They’re spread out on the floor in two of the back rooms. One is ten foot by six feet. You really should see these things.”
I told him I already knew exactly what the “things” looked like. I sensed some disbelief on his part, which changed after I described all three in intimate detail–with the aid of the slides, of course. I then asked how much he wanted.
“You really need to see these in person.”
“Why? I know what they look like. How much do you want? If your asking price is reasonable I’ll probably buy all three.”
“No. You really need to see these in person.”
“I’m not coming to Menlo Park unless we already have a deal.”
We sparred back and forth for a few more minutes without coming to an agreement.
By the time I hung up I was exasperated.
It was not an uncommon type of exchange in the art business–at least not in my experience. More often than not I’m approached by potential sellers who claim to have no idea how much their item is worth and, accordingly, no idea how much they want. They expect me to tell them what it’s worth then make an offer.
Although rare, there are times when I actually give a free verbal appraisal before making an offer. On those occasions the potential sellers almost always respond by saying they want to “think about it.” They always promise to get back to me. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
And most of their time is spent shopping my offer instead of “thinking”.
So my more frequent response is similar to what I told the guy from Menlo Park. “When you figure out how much you want let me know. I just might pull the trigger.”
I had no desire to waste $350 on a round trip ticket to the Bay Area, give a free evaluation, then return home while they shopped my price to everyone and anyone they could find with a history of selling Marjorie Reed’s work.
Two days later I was telling the story to a close friend who also happens to be my financial advisor.
“So let me get this straight;” he asked. “You figure the murals are worth how much?”
“At least $60 to $70K.”
“And for that amount you’re too cheap to spend $350? Why don’t you go and try to close the deal? What’s the worst that can happen?”
“The worst that can happen is I’ll pay $350 for the privilege of wasting a day.”
Three days later my flight landed at San Francisco International.
Another member of the group of investors (who henceforth will be referred to as the Investment Group for liability protection purposes) met me at the airport. He was one of those provincial Bay Area types who couldn’t understand why anyone would live in Arizona. He was firmly convinced the entire state was like Sun City, probably because that was where his parents lived and it was the only place in Arizona he had ever visited. I tried a couple times to explain what a large and diverse state it was before dropping it.
When we arrived at the former Argonaut Insurance Building I was met by the individual who contacted me on the phone. He seemed like a decent enough sort. After showing me the murals, he also shared about a dozen hand carved wooden figurines which had adorned the perimeter of the roof. (Note: Again, for liability protection purposes, going forward I will refer to the individuals I dealt with on this transaction as “First Guy” and “Second Guy”, “First Guy” being the one who picked me up at the airport.)
After checking out all of the wood carvings we went back for another look at the murals.
We alternately made polite small talk and quietly admired the pieces. Finally I blurted out, “I’ll give you $35,000 for all three.”
My offer was countered with the predictable response. “OK, thank you,” First Guy said. “We’ll think about it and get back to you.”
It was time for a Hail Mary. I had the foresight to bring the rough draft of the book, which was about 60% complete. Although it was only a rough draft it contained enough never before seen photos of Marjorie and her early work to weave a tale–kind of like using a series of storyboards.
I removed the draft from my briefcase and asked if they would like to see what I planned to with the murals if we could cut a deal. They professed interest.
As I flipped through the pages I told them Reed’s early life, how she worked for Disney before deciding the work was too regimented and striking out on her own in her early twenties. “She made her living as a free-lance artist for over sixty years,” I explained. “That’s almost unprecedented for any artist that I’m aware of. For a woman artist who painted Western subject matter it’s just outright unbelievable.”
I had their attention so I kept going. I was starting to believe my Hail Mary might actually be caught by a team mate in the end zone.
By the time I was finished I could tell they were genuinely intrigued. I then explained how after the book was published I planned a museum tour which would include dozens of her paintings. “These murals would make a great addition to the tour. They’re obviously real attention getters.”
I confess to having exaggerated slightly–OK, it was an outright fabrication. The transport costs alone for a ten foot by six foot mural from location to location would be prohibitively expensive. But it sounded like a great idea to anyone not experienced with shipping art works.
The two looked at each other for a few moments. Then Second Guy said, “Give us a few minutes, please. We’ll be right back.”
They left the room and went into the office across the hall, closing the door behind them.
Less than five minutes later they returned.
“Make it 45 and you have a deal,” Second Guy told me.
“Done!” I exclaimed, thinking to myself, “Caught! Caught in the end zone! I can’t believe I pulled this one off.”
Now we get to the part where, as we’ve all heard ad nauseum, “Life is about the lessons learned.”
What I should have said next: “Take me down to nearest U-haul dealer. I’ll rent a truck and be back here immediately to pick these up.”
What I said instead: “I’ll call an art transfer service and have these picked up tomorrow, if that’s OK.”
They agreed. I wrote and handed them a check for $45,000.
“Your flight back isn’t until 4:30,” First Guy said. “Why don’t you join us for lunch?”
I accepted, although I remember becoming immediately suspicious. At the same time I felt conflicted, wondering why I would feel that way. Like the name of the famous dating service, “Hey, It’s Only Lunch.” But I remained wary for reasons I couldn’t explain.
I can’t remember the name of the restaurant we went to. I just remember they had a lot of tables on the sidewalk in downtown Palo Alto. There I met Third Guy, Fourth Guy, Fifth Guy etc. –all partners in the Investment Group.
There were a total of seven. I was Eighth Guy. I was told Seventh Guy would be my point of contact for the rest of the transaction.
I learned this bunch must have owned at least half the commercial real estate in Palo Alto. I also remember feeling like a wolverine in one of those You Tube videos backing down a pack of wolves from the kill. Again, I could point to no tangible evidence as to why I should have felt so uneasy. The talk was all civil and polite. No one tried to pressure me or put me on the spot about anything. But I couldn’t shake the ominous feeling.
After lunch First Guy drove me back to San Francisco International. While I was waiting in the airport I made a phone call to another dealer in Tucson who I frequently partnered with on transactions. Before I left Arizona he had offered to help fund the acquisition if the asking price exceeded $50,000. I thanked him for his offer of assistance, then told him I had acquired all three for “just a little less than $50K.” “So for now they’re all mine,” I said proudly.
He immediately offered to pay $75,000 for the three. I accepted without countering.
$30,000 net with one phone call –if I’d have had more stories like this one I’d still be in the art business full time.
The next day after returning home I immediately headed for the Navajo Country. I had a tour set up with a guide who would later become a friend and repeat guide named Vee Browne.
Vee had first met Marjorie in the early 1960s. She was herding sheep across one of the roads near Black Mesa when Marjorie and her fourth husband, Cecil Creese drove up in a station wagon and asked her to pose for a photograph. After she did they gave her “a whole bunch of coins…all my little hands could handle. I thought it was all the money in the world at the time. And I thought they were rich people.”
Vee took Barbara and I on a tour of the areas on the west side of Black Mesa where Marjorie was known to set up her easel and paint plein air.
At the time the only cell phone service in remote areas of the reservation was Verizon. I had AT&T. I didn’t even bother to bring my phone along. When we returned to our hotel in Show Low I had three voicemails waiting. All were from the dealer in Tucson, wanting to know if the murals had been delivered to my gallery yet.
At the time I had been so busy having fun in Jimmy Country I hadn’t even thought about it. I assumed they had. So I was surprised when I called the gallery and was told they hadn’t. I immediately called the art transfer service.
“We have two out for delivery tomorrow,” I was told by the young lady who answered the phone.
“Two? There were three.”
“Yes, but we only picked up two.”
“What about the third?”
“You need to call the Investment Group.”
“Why? What happened to the third?”
“I can’t say. All I can say is you really need to call the Investment Group.”
“What the hell happened!?”
“Sir, I can’t say. Please, you need to call the Investment Group right now.”
The same ominous feeling I had during lunch three days earlier had returned. I wasted no time calling Seventh Guy.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he told me calmly, “But sometime during the night someone broke into the back room and stole the mural of the 49ers.”
To this day I’m amazed I was able to restrain myself. “Let me make sure I understand. Someone actually broke into a building where there was nothing but three murals laying on the floor, took one and didn’t even touch the other two?”
“Yes. We couldn’t believe it.”
It was all I could do to not to say, “And I don’t believe it either. Not for one minute.” Somehow I remained composed.
After remaining silent for a few moments I said, “Well this is a first. How do you propose we handle it?”
His response was immediate. “Let us know how much you had allocated to the stolen one and we’ll send you a check right away.”
Two days later a check arrived for $15,000. I called the Investment Group to let them know I had received the funds. Fifth Guy, who I never cared for from the beginning, answered the phone.
“Yeah,” he laughed, “It will probably turn up in the parking lot at a 7-Eleven in a few days.”
I politely pointed out the utter stupidity of his prediction. “People don’t buy art work in 7-Eleven parking lots. Stolen stereo equipment and jewelry, yes, but not art.”
I continued, “And I can guarantee one thing. Whoever took it had better really like it. Because the thief will never get any money for it. It’s been “burned” as they say in the business. No dealer or auction house will ever touch it.”
I went on to explain I had filed a report with the Menlo Park police department and listed it with the Art Loss Register.
I sensed complete and total indifference on the other end of the phone. I also felt a slight sense of outrage after I hung up. True, with the reimbursement for the stolen piece I still made as much money as I would have if all three murals had been sold as planned. But no one likes being played for a chump, even if they make nice chunk of change in the process.
Nearly eight years later I haven’t seen The Early Argonauts since I walked out of the room after handing Second Guy the check. I’ve never even heard a rumor of its whereabouts. I’ve never heard from or seen any of the guys in the Investment Group either.
So where is it now?
I have no idea. But I can’t shake this feeling that someday I’ll find out.
For Part Two of the mural caper, see Gary Fillmore’s blog: Looking for Jimmy
Hear Gary Fillmore discuss the life and work of Marjorie Reed on February 14th, 2020, 6:30-7:30 pm, as part of California Desert History Weekend sponsored by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. To register for the event: https://www.abdnha.org/deserthistory/