By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"I'll put it this way: In the wrong hands, that picture is a portal for domination of the beast."
Let's just start with that statement, spoken by one David Barnes with an expression on his face of a man who has seen things. Things that you may find hard to believe, things that, you may feel, give sanity as most people know it a run for its money. Things that he does not doubt in the least.
David is 40, an eastern Texas native. He is joined by Debbie, his wife (they've been together 25 years), and his brother Daryle in telling his strange tale, which will take us from a lost work by Pablo Picasso to:
Messages from God (and perhaps from Picasso himself).
Long-hidden art troves.
Visions of coming tragedy.
Visions of boundless charity.
The return of Christ.
The end of the world.
And it all began in a Dumpster in Scottsdale.
About 22 years ago, Debbie's grandparents were living in a retirement community in that city when they befriended another couple who were in the habit of Dumpster-diving. You never know what somebody's going to throw away. One haul yielded a small work in a chrome frame, a stark, familiar image of black on white, two stick-figure fellows on horseback. The name at the bottom was Picasso, the piece was "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza." The couple gave it to Debbie's grandparents, who hung it on their wall until Debbie's invalid grandfather decided he didn't like it anymore; Don and Sancho were banished to a closet.
When Debbie and David moved into a new apartment, Grandma gave them a bunch of things, including the Picasso. They had it up, had it down, and each time Debbie would put it out with yard-sale stuff, David would rescue it. In 1975, the Barneses were moving; everything they owned was on the back of a truck. They blew a tire, flipped four times and skidded hundreds of feet, and almost everything was destroyed, says Debbie.
"The only things that made it through that crash was the painting and my Tupperware."
And then . . .
"One night about two years ago, one of my girlfriends was over," says Debbie. "It was on a Sunday night, and we were just sitting around talking about family heirlooms, so I dug this thing out of the closet--we used to joke about it, about 'our Picasso.' She had studied art at ASU, and she started really looking at it. Then on Monday night she came back, and she had about 120 different books. She had spent the entire day in the library, and she said, 'I think what you've got is a Picasso.'"
The Barneses knew as much about Picasso as Picasso knew about them, but Debbie and David hit the books. They went from library to library, they photocopied page after page, they traveled through a local network of those knowledgeable about art, hoping to find someone who could tell them exactly what was in that cheap chrome frame.
According to the couple, this led to a man in a gallery in Scottsdale. (Repeated calls to the gallery brought nary an answering machine, only a phone that rang and rang.)
"We called him, told him a little bit about what we had, and he said to bring it down," Debbie says. "I didn't want to go with them because I was just too scared. David and Daryle called me from the gallery and told me what happened, and I didn't believe them."
According to Daryle, this is what happened:
"He said, 'Let's see what you got.' We had it in a pillowcase, so we took it out and handed it to him. He looked at it and started sweating real profusely and handed it back real fast and said, 'My insurance company would kill me if they knew this was here.' He literally fell against a wall and slid down on his back and said, 'You don't know what you have!' Me and Dave were looking at each other like, 'What's up with this guy?'"
Debbie says the man at the gallery immediately set up a buyer willing to pay $4 million, but they were not going to jump just yet. Besides, they were suspicious of this man, whom Debbie says was "acting too funny, like we were long-lost buddies or something."
They decided to go to the source.
"We called the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain, and through a translator they asked David four questions," Debbie offers. "The size of the paper, the size of the image, what the texture was like on the front, and was it the same as on the back. After David answered those four questions, they said, 'All we have allotted now is ten million.' We didn't know if that was in Spanish or American money."
All this despite that no real expert had yet to hold the work in his hands and make a pronouncement. That's when the Barneses called Samuel Heath, at the time (about two years ago) director of the Meadows Museum of Art in Dallas, specializing in Spanish art. He told them if they wanted to make the trip, he'd take a look.