By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
They wanted to have the painting appraised, and when the art dealer snapped a Polaroid of it, the two men hid their faces, left and never came back.
A year later, the real estate agent, Nancy Carter, got a phone call from a young woman who identified herself as a "party girl" in upstate New York. She had been "entertaining" some men she thought to be dangerous mobsters, and when the men were drunk and high on drugs, they showed her a painting they claimed was a Picasso. She offered to steal the artwork back from the mobsters and return it to Alvarez for $500,000, which he again refused, even when she lowered her price to $50,000. Carter suggested she call the police instead.
"It wasn't long after that they recovered it," Carter says. The Picasso turned up in Brian Kingman's car at Scottsdale Municipal Airport. There were reasons for it to be there, even if they were dumb reasons. The Mauriellos were looking for someone to tell them they had an original Picasso. They just needed to find experts who were more ignorant about art than they were.
Brian Kingman had a friend from the check-cashing business named Ron Phares who moved to Vegas and changed his name to Sonny Harris. Harris/Phares was visiting with Kingman in Phoenix in late 1991, and they went to visit another friend of Kingman's, an art broker named Jerre Lynn Wick.
Wick is a partner in a business listed in the phone book as Brown, Burns & Wick, Fine Art, Inc. She has been described by one local art gallery owner as a "dabbler," someone who appreciates fine art and has connections among like-minded members of the Phoenix gentry. Her former husband was mayor of Paradise Valley. At the time of Harris' visit, Wick had at her home a black-and-white Picasso painting that she was selling on consignment. Kingman was mesmerized that something so small and so ugly could be worth so much money.
"The joke was, my wife said if I bought that at a yard sale and told her I paid a hundred bucks, she'd be pissed off at me," Kingman remembers.
A year later, Harris called Kingman to say that a friend of his son knew two guys who thought they had a Picasso painting. Could Kingman put them in touch with Jerre Lynn Wick?
Kingman called Wick, who conferred with her business associates and then told Kingman to get a photograph and measurements of the painting and they would proceed from there.
The Mauriellos complied--and also sent along the New York Times article hinting that the painting could be stolen. They assured Kingman that they had nothing to do with the theft and that the statute of limitations had run out on the painting's possession.
(Jerre Lynn Wick refused to talk at any length to New Times, but she did confirm that Kingman never brought up any expectations of personal profit from the Mauriellos' transaction. Nor did he think he was doing anything illegal. Wick's more talkative new husband, however, apparently worried that his wife might be implicated in wrongdoing, most impressively charged a New Times reporter and bumped chests in a threatening manner while gesticulating wildly and screaming, "I'm an attorney.")
When he learned the painting might be stolen, Wick's associate, Michael Burns, called around to insurance companies to see if there was a reward for its return. If an insurance policy had reimbursed the painting's owner after the theft, he figured, then the painting would belong to the company. Wick's and Burns' firm could then sell the painting for the insurance company and receive a commission.
"The insurance companies usually pay a finder's fee," says Burns, "and if it was going to be resold, we wanted to be in on it. We called the insurance companies, and the next thing the FBI was involved."
Alvarez had hung the fake on the wall because he had no insurance, but there was no way for Burns to know that. So he didn't know to be suspicious when a man identifying himself as "Mr. Walker from an insurance company" returned his call. It was probably FBI special agent Reno Walker. Walker was going to put Kingman in touch with an art expert named Thomas Bishop, who was actually FBI special agent Thomas McShane. They made arrangements to meet on a Wednesday.
"[The art expert] was going to fly in on his way from New York to L.A.," Kingman recalls, "meet us at the airport, decide if it was real, and then go on."
Kingman called the Mauriellos and they flew in from Las Vegas. Kingman picked them up at the airport and drove them to his house while they waited to hear from "Bishop," the FBI expert. Stephen Mauriello, the younger of the two, was a handsome, dark-haired fellow with a New Yorky manner and a flashy wardrobe. He also seemed to have Tourette's Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics and grunts. "Every now and then he'd let out a nervous sound like a little dog barking," says Kingman.
The older man, Alfred, who asked to be called Roy, was grandfatherly and distinguished in a dark suit.