Vanishing Act

In 15 years, about 400 people died in a small room in Reverend Sky Guadagno's coral-colored house in South Phoenix. After each death, Reverend Sky would sponge off the corpse with soapy water and hum melodies to comfort the soul Reverend Sky suspected lingered in the death room. Once the freshly washed cadavers were transported from his house to the mortuary, Reverend Sky would get rid of the IV tubing, used bandages and dirty diapers. He would strip the bedding from the pink futon and straighten up the Tibetan wind bells and Native American drums. Then he'd rearrange the teddy-bear puppets that comforted sick children, smooth out the rabbit fur he rubbed against the brows of the dying, wipe off the mirror that the terminally ill sometimes used to talk to themselves during their final hours. If the room stank of death, he would open the window that looked out on his organic vegetable garden, citrus trees, potted aloe plants and the foothills of South Mountain.

Guadagno is a 53-year-old nurse who, for a decade and a half, has cared for AIDS patients in their last few days of life. He began tending the dying in the 1980s, when he was a hospital nurse and AIDS was perceived as a terrifying plague. At the time, fearful hospital staffers would routinely abandon the afflicted, leaving them to die in pain in their isolated hospital rooms.

Guadagno quit his job as a hospital nurse, and began to survive on donations from family members of the dead and from those in the gay community who supported his work.

For sure, terminal AIDS patients were lucky if they found out about the Reverend Sky. Sometimes, Guadagno nursed them in their own homes. Other times, if the invalids were homeless or deserted by their families, he'd take them to his house, to the death room and the pink futon and Indian drums, where they could die holding the Reverend's hand.

What little money he managed to save he invested in art--carefully, he says, purchasing undervalued pieces in the local art market. Then he'd sell the art when its price went up, making a bit of a profit.

He didn't make millions or even too many thousands--he didn't need a lot. He lived simply, but he had no financial security.

Then he got the idea he could double his life savings of about $30,000 by investing in an art deal offered by the Gallery Rodeo, then of Scottsdale; Lake Arrowhead; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Beverly Hills.

The art market appears now not to have been as sound an area of investment as Reverend Sky had hoped. And Gallery Rodeo is now as elusive as his missing artwork.

Reverend Sky lives amid cliched Native American decor in a small house in the foothills of South Mountain. The fellow used to have a perfectly good name--Gerald Michael Guadagno--but these days he prefers to be called Sky Nighthawk Guadagno. He's a nondenominational minister who seems more like a Sedona-style New Age shaman. He's a muscular, bearded white guy who lives in a house that has eagle feathers and Indian drums and paintings of Indian chiefs in practically every room. He says he studied with a medicine man. He got the title of Reverend after graduating from the nondenominational "University of Life" in Phoenix.

Okay, so he's a typical touchy-feely New Age savant. But you should not judge too harshly a man who has spent his last 15 years tending terminally ill men, women and children.

Sitting on his Indian-style couch and wearing a tee shirt with a buffalo design, he explains that when he needed a break from nursing the dying, he would treat himself to an Art Walk and dinner at Malee's, a trendy Thai restaurant in the center of Scottsdale's art district. He claims he learned a great deal about investing in art during his forays into Scottsdale.

But he didn't learn enough.
In 1994, he thought he'd made a killer investment--Gallery Rodeo in Scottsdale, through its affiliate Gallery Rodeo of Beverly Hills, offered him prints by Brett Livingstone-Strong, an artist who often included Native Americans in his paintings. Gallery representatives persuaded Reverend Sky he could buy prints from Gallery Rodeo at a discounted price, and the gallery could later resell them for an immense profit. Reverend Sky purchased $18,400 worth of Livingstone-Strong art. He kept a few pieces in his house, then later returned them all to the gallery for resale at the request of gallery officials, he says.

The Reverend was so taken by Gallery Rodeo's "investment" opportunities that he decided to pay an additional $11,500 for 50 Renoir lithographs. This time, he signed up for a "Dealer Participation" deal--the gallery would keep the art, supposedly resell it, send Reverend Sky a check for twice his investment.

But the dealer wasn't participating, apparently. By January 1997, Gallery Rodeo hadn't sold a single piece of Reverend Sky's art, and he began to get suspicious and wanted his art back.

The Scottsdale Gallery Rodeo had already closed down in 1996, so Reverend Sky tried to get his art from the Beverly Hills gallery. Company reps rarely returned his calls, and when they did, they were evasive about returning his artwork.

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