The Artful Dodger

The two Korean businessmen checked into the New Otani Hotel in downtown L.A. The older one spoke only Korean; the younger acted as translator for Moneybags, as his companion would come to be characterized by police. They were meeting a doctor — a former Harvard professor — who was selling some high-ticket art. Not that the men knew much about paintings, but who could ignore the boom?

In December, precisely when the Koreans were making their date with the doctor, the art market hit its highest point in 14 years. Sales had leaped by 25 percent over the previous year, and people with money but not much knowledge wanted to get into the game.

The Koreans had met an L.A. businessman who had arranged this meeting. Still, they were anxious. Was the broker trustworthy? Was the doctor? As far as that goes, was the doctor himself taking a risk, meeting a couple of strangers like this?

Dr. Vilas Vishwan Likhite, then 66, arrived at the New Otani with an assistant. Like the Koreans, the assistant, Rey Smith, didn't know much about art. He lived near the doctor's modest one-bedroom condo and made business cards for a living, he would later tell police. The 39-year-old Smith, a soft-spoken Filipino, would also tell them he was not just an unpaid assistant; he was also an investor, having given Li-khi-te $49,000 of his own money, the entire settlement from his recent divorce.

Smith ferried the artworks to the hotel. There were about 20 paintings, along with black loose-leaf binders full of paperwork. One of the paintings, in a pretty oval frame, was a portrait of a dark-haired young woman by the American impressionist Mary Cassatt, Likhite said. Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Jasper Johns — these were some of the other names in the doctor's pantheon. Smith also carried folders of photographs of art too heavy to bring along, including a 300-pound jade Buddha extracted, Likhite said, from a cave in western China.

A frail man with a shy grin, Likhite greeted the Koreans. “Well educated, very presentable, polite to a fault — he looks like somebody's grandfather” is how a detective would later describe him. The doctor stood to make his presentation, then spoke nonstop for more than an hour. The Koreans listened, trying not to appear impatient — or bored, in the case of Moneybags, who understood little.

Likhite told of his illustrious father and grandfather, who had worked for a maharajah back in India before the country's war for independence; the family's immigration to the United States when Likhite was 11; his college days in Louisiana; medical school; his rise to a position at Harvard. Finally he got to the art, which Likhite said made up a small fraction of the collection given to his family by the maharajah. When Likhite's father died, it had been handed down to him. He had never taken the works to auction, he said, because his father had stipulated that if the art was ever sold, it be done in private in circumstances like these.

Edward Nardell, a physician who lives in Newtonville, heard the same story about 20 years ago, when he met Likhite at an auction on Cape Cod. Nardell was 39, furnishing a house, and buying art at an auction for the first time. “It was exciting to meet someone who would take me by the hand,” Nardell says. “He told me he was no longer in medicine because of this bonanza of art.” He also said he knew Edward “Ned” Johnson III of Fidelity Investments and that Fidelity was paying him to be an art consultant.

Likhite is “a smooth character,” says Donald Hrycyk, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Known as the Art Cop, Hrycyk heads the only police detail in the country that deals full-time with art theft and fraud. He, too, has heard some of Likhite's stories. According to Hrycyk, Likhite claims Las Vegas casino builder Steve Wynn as his new Ned Johnson. “He says things like, 'I almost sold a de Kooning to Steve Wynn for $30 million. Wynn sent it to someone in Boston who said it was authentic, but the deal fell through.' Well, I talked to Steve. He doesn't know who Likhite is. I also talked to Ned Johnson, who did have one brief contact with this guy probably 15 years ago.”

The tale about the maharajah also contains a kernel of truth. Likhite's father worked in the agricultural department of a maharajah who may have given the family what they believed to be a Modigliani drawing. Or it may have been a print. Or it may not have come from the maharajah at all. “The sandwiching of truths between half-truths is hard to figure when you're involved with a sociopath,” says Nardell. “He'd say, 'Hey, this looks like a Whistler.' He'd buy it for $1,000 or $1,800, put it into his collection, and it would become a Whistler.”

Nardell never bought any Whistlers from Likhite, but did give him $12,000 for two Modiglianis and a Brancusi sketch. At least, that's what he was given to believe they were. He hung them on his walls, where they might still be today if Likhite hadn't offered to sell art to Nardell's friends. Working the crowd, so to speak, seemed untoward. Until then, Nardell had not considered the doctor to be a dealer. Hadn't he been selling Nardell works at bargain prices as a friend and mentor? Or was Likhite trying to make money after all?

A few months later, Nardell met someone who worked at Fidelity. The man had never heard of Likhite and said that as far as he knew, Fidelity had no art consultants. So Nardell took a Chagall he'd gotten from Likhite to Harvard's Fogg Art Museum to consult the person Likhite claimed had authenticated it. She had no recollection of him. She also said that while the picture was indeed a charcoal, it was not by Chagall. Next, Nardell called Johnson's office and learned of the tenuousness of Likhite's link to him.

Finally, Nardell confronted Likhite. “He immediately returned the money, undid the crime.” Even so, Nardell contacted the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office and learned that Likhite had also sold an “Edgar Degas,” a “Pierre Bonnard,” and a “Daniel Ridgeway Knight” to a local entrepreneur, Anthony Biancaniello, who had subsequently brought criminal charges against him. Nardell became a co-complainant in the same case, adding a count of attempted larceny.

Likhite, as it happens, really had been an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s. He would say later, in a hearing before the state medical board, that he left Harvard because he was not receiving cooperation in his research. His medical license was revoked when, in the 1970s and early '80s, he injected experimental drugs into two patients.

Likhite got probation in the Middlesex case, paid restitution, and served no jail time. The judge also forbade him, in effect, from selling art in Massachusetts for three years. But even if Likhite had been precluded from selling in California and every other place, courts don't often decree that fake or falsely attributed artworks must be destroyed or even certified as bogus. A con artist, therefore, may be free to sell them yet again.

George Gaulding, the former president of a hospital in California, met Likhite in 1997. He never bought art from him; instead, he got involved with the doctor's purported medical research. Likhite asked Gaulding to help him raise $250 million to fight cancer. Gaulding, in turn, introduced Likhite to his banker friends.

The two new friends traveled to San Diego on day trips. Likhite was a welcome guest at Gaulding's home. Gaulding would visit Likhite's condo. “It was a mess, art laying around everywhere. He'd pull a piece out of the closet and say it was worth $15 million.” Gaulding believed Likhite was an eccentric genius and didn't question him.

In 2002, Gaulding made a trip to Boston, where Likhite invited him and a friend to see the art collection he had stashed away in a storage facility in Cambridge. “[We] saw at least four big vaults with art stacked up,” says Gaulding — hundreds of paintings, along with a few supposed Stradivarius violins lying broken in a dusty corner. Likhite claimed the art was valued at $1 billion.

That fall, Likhite called needing money, and Gaulding broached the subject of selling some of the collection. Likhite “went berserk” at the suggestion. “He wouldn't have it.” But he did agree to use the art as collateral against loans. “So I took a painting, a Mary Cassatt, to a gallery friend in Beverly Hills. He had a Cassatt for sale for $2.2 million. My friend said Likhite's was worth nothing.” Gaulding confronted Likhite with the news, and their friendship ended. “Vilas felt I had called him a liar and a manipulator. I felt bad about it. I even wrote him a letter of apology.”

Likhite didn't reply, for by then he had enlisted Rey Smith as his new associate. He had also recruited the L.A. businessman who would broker the deal with the Koreans. But when the broker took some of Likhite's art to a gallery and heard the opinion of the dealer there, he called Detective Hrycyk.

The Koreans huddled, then offered $30 million for four works. Likhite said he would need to consult with “scholars” before accepting a price so low. In the end, the Koreans settled on Cassatt's Portrait of Miss Saltonstall. The doctor said it was worth $1.2 million, but he was willing to let it go for $800,000.

The men agreed. The doctor provided a deposit slip for ease of payment. Then the door to the adjoining room opened. Hrycyk walked in. He had been filming Likhite's pitch. The Koreans — Tae Hong and John Byun — were cops, recruited by Hrycyk for his sting.

Since the New Otani incident, nine days before Christmas, Likhite has been a guest of L.A. County, held in lieu of $250,000 bail. At his pretrial hearing, Hrycyk testified that the Buddha they found in the condo, which Likhite had valued at $48 million, was of 20th-
century vintage, according to an Asian art expert, and worth about $300. However, two experts in Australia claim the Cassatt is real, and for now that is Likhite's defense. “He has every reason to believe it very well could be an authentic work of Mary Cassatt,” Likhite's attorney, H. K. Kim, says. “So the sphere of opinion and the sphere of fraud and criminality are completely different. Fraud and criminality are restricted to expressions of fact only. You cannot criminalize opinion.” Likhite himself would not agree to be interviewed.

There is a rumor that the experts in Australia may have bought art from Likhite. If so, they have a vested interest in his story. Ed Nardell knows the feeling. Before he made the call to Ned Johnson's office and before his visit to the Fogg, a colleague suggested that the Chagall was counterfeit, but Nardell initially refused to believe it. After he realized the truth, he phoned another Likhite patron and told her his story. “She said, 'Oh, you must be mistaken. You simply must not be talking about the good Dr. Likhite.'” Many people would rather lose money than face.

Besides the outcome of the California case, yet to be determined, there is still the matter of the paintings stored in Cambridge. Hrycyk hasn't seen them and may not. “It's junk, mostly,” he has heard from various visitors. But, hey, it's still art. Nobody's going to build a bonfire. Art rarely gets destroyed, no matter who painted it. Eventually, if only to finance the back rent, it's going to return to the marketplace, where, with luck, it will be sold for exactly what it is.