At a sentencing hearing on October 4, Michael Little faces up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for selling pieces of glass art that he had passed off as the work of renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. By the time agents from the Department of Homeland Security arrested him last April, the 35-year-old Renton man had bilked more than 10 naive art collectors out of at least $40,000. Doesn’t sound like much until you consider that Little bought most of that “art” online for less than a dollar apiece from sellers in China. More remarkable still: The fraud likely would have continued unabated if not for Kate Elliott’s near-photographic memory.
Today Elliott runs Elliott Arts West, an art appraisal business in Santa Fe, but throughout the ’70s and ’80s—long before Chihuly became the figurehead of a monolithic glass-blowing enterprise—she worked alongside the wiry-haired artist, helping to catalog his earliest work. After each piece was completed, she’d hold it while Chihuly used a Dremel to etch his signature into the glass. Then Elliott took a Polaroid, assigned a registration number, and packed it for shipping to a gallery. As a result of handling everything he created—which she estimates was upward of 200 pieces per year—she committed it all to memory, from that squiggly signature to the distinctive, so-called punty left on his sculptural baskets where they were pulled off of the pontil rod.
So last winter, when a retired Air Force pilot from Spokane sent Elliott photos of pieces he’d bought from Little in the hopes that she could authenticate them, she knew right away that they were fakes. Jim Coombes was so taken by the Gonzaga Red Chandelier, a massive tangle of glass tendrils designed by Chihuly that has hung in Gonzaga’s Jundt museum since 1995, that he went straight to eBay to hunt for items he could buy and donate to the school. And that’s when he encountered Little. On January 1, 2012, Coombes won an auction for a glass vessel purportedly created by Chihuly with a bid of $1,591. Seven weeks later Coombes met Little in Tukwila, in the Westfield Southcenter mall parking lot, where he forked over $6,500 for three more “Chihuly” glass pieces and seven paintings purportedly from the artist. And that was just the beginning: Over a five-month period, Coombes handed Little more than $20,000 for what all turned out to be worthless art. “Poor guy thought he’d hit the jackpot,” Elliott says with a sigh. “He just didn’t know any better.”
It wasn’t until a year after he bought that first bowl that Coombes enlisted Elliott’s help, though. For months he’d pressed Little for proof of the works’ provenance, and although Little had turned over certificates of purchase that bore what appeared to be Chihuly’s signature, Coombes still wasn’t satisfied. (With good reason: Federal agents later found a rubber stamp of the artist’s John Hancock in Little’s house.) He called Elliott (her LinkedIn profile is the first search result when you Google Chihuly authenticator), explained the situation, and the deception began to unravel almost immediately. Coincidentally, Chihuly’s personal attorney had scheduled lunch with Elliott in Santa Fe in early February, a month after she’d learned of Coombes’s plight. “I thought, I’m going to put together this package for him with all of the evidence I have. ” she says. It was a powerful package: On February 13 the studio’s counsel alerted the U.S. Attorney’s office, and less than three months later, Little was in custody, bringing an end to a scam that started as far back as January 2011. (Representatives from Chihuly’s studio declined requests for comments for this story.)
Elliott routinely receives requests to authenticate pieces from people who think they struck gold at a flea market (“They think, It’s blown glass—it must be Chihuly”), and just as often she has to inform them they’ve bought just another chunk of glass. But the Little case was different. “I don’t know if there’s anybody doing this to the degree that he was,” she says of Little’s eBay shenanigans. In other words, when shopping for art online it never hurts to check with an expert before you place that bid.
Published: October 2013