A Tale Forged in Paint and Steel

Picassos, eBay Pollocks, a submarine, counterfeit bills, this one’s got it all
John Re, right, with an unidentified man aboard his Deep Quest submarine, in a 2006 image from the Belleair Bee newspaper in Florida Chary Southmayd/Tampa Bay Newspapers

John D. Re is lauded by some as an art expert who guided them to important art purchases at discount prices. Others, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has accused him of selling fake Jackson Pollocks for almost $2 million, consider him a thief, peddling forged art and tall tales.

A confidence man or a confident man, Mr. Re, 54, who is from East Hampton, has been called both.

“I consider myself a patriot and a gentleman,” Mr. Re said in a Sept. 14, 2006, East Hampton Star article on a small submarine that he had restored and was piloting up the Atlantic Coast. Mr. Re told The Star, The New York Times, and a host of other reporters intrigued by the vessel that he had purchased the sub, the U.S.S. Deep Quest, on eBay in 2004. He told The New York Times in 2007 that it had been on a back lot at Universal Studios before he bought it for $70,000 and had it restored in Galveston, Tex.

By the time Corey Kilgannon interviewed him for a Nov. 18, 2007, New York Times article, Mr. Re had already completed a long, slow journey up the Atlantic Coast and was keeping the sub in Greenport. “This is just an eccentric thing I’m doing,” Mr. Re said in the 2006 East Hampton Star article, speaking from Hilton Head Island, S.C. He said he had put $1 million into the restoration of the Deep Quest. “It has East Hampton, N.Y., written on the side. A Jet Ski is towing behind, and there’s a 50-caliber deck gun. It’s East Hampton’s first submarine,” Mr. Re said in the interview.

Its history was detailed in that article and several others. According to The Times, “It was built in 1967 by Lockheed and used by the Navy for salvage work, seafloor surveys and mapping. In 1968, it set the United States record for a deep-sea dive submersible at 8,310 feet, planting an American flag on the floor of the Pacific. In 1969, it recovered the flight recorder boxes from two airliners that crashed in the Pacific Ocean. It helped photograph the Titanic on the floor of the Atlantic in the 1970s and was decommissioned in 1980.”

All that was true of the U.S.S. Deep Quest, according to Kathleen Edgecomb, a reporter for The Day, a New London paper, but it wasn’t the history of the vessel Mr. Re owned.

“It’s not the real thing. It’s a fake,” Ron Roehmholdt, who was then the exhibits chief for Navy Museums Northwest in Keyport, Wash., told Ms. Edgecomb in an April 2010 article.

Ms. Edgecomb had interviewed Mr. Re after the Deep Quest ran into trouble in the waters near New London. He had been on a pleasure cruise with his wife and two daughters when his seawater pump failed, and had to be towed into the harbor of the Thames River by the Coast Guard. Like several reporters before her, Ms. Edgecomb interviewed Mr. Re about the curious craft.

The story Mr. Re told “raised a lot of red flags for us,” Ms. Edgecomb said last week, recalling the 2010 interview. With New London being home to a naval submarine base, “we have a lot of history buffs here.”

She began making calls, and soon was in touch with Mr. Roehmholdt. “This gentleman bought himself a movie prop,” he said in her Aug. 19, 2010, article. “He’s called us four or five times over the years to ask if we wanted to buy it.”

In fact, Mr. Roehmholdt told The Day, the original U.S.S. Deep Quest has been on display at the museum’s underwater exhibit since the mid-1990s. Mr. Roehmholdt, the winner of Washington State’s million-dollar lottery in 2008, has since retired.

Ms. Edgecomb researched the various articles written about Mr. Re’s sub, as he made the voyage from Galveston to Greenport, where it is currently berthed. The vessel travels at about five and a half knots per hour; the trip took several weeks. In every port he entered on the way north, the local newspapers would interview him. “In each one,” Ms. Edgecomb wrote in 2010, “Re says his ship is the one built by Lockheed in 1967.”

In 2010, after Ms. Edgecomb confronted him with what she had learned, Mr. Re continued to insist he had the legitimate Deep Quest, and said “he has a certificate of authenticity to prove it,” she wrote in 2010. “He said he had it inspected, and Lockheed told him the welds were by Lockheed and the steel was Navy-grade.”

“So they want to call it a movie prop, go ahead, call it a movie prop,” Mr. Re told her. “Can I prove it was the ship that made the historic dives? No. But it’s all good.”

In at least three instances, Mr. Re’s contact with local papers was precipitated by difficulties his craft experienced in the water. According to The Belleair Bee on Aug. 24, 2006, a call for assistance from Mr. Re when the Deep Quest’s generator broke down drew a response from the Clearwater Yacht Club in Florida, inviting Mr. Re to berth his vessel among the yachts.

“It’s the first submarine we’ve had here,” Tom Brusini, general manager of the Clearwater Yacht Club, said in the article. “We welcomed them, and served them lunch.”

While Mr. Re’s account of the sub’s history never varied, the pricetag of the project did. The Island Packet, covering Hilton Head and Beaufort, S.C., and The New York Times reported that it cost him nearly $700,000. The Belleair Bee made it “some $500,000.” Mr. Re told The Day and The Star that it cost $1 million.

He described himself to reporters as an art dealer, but frequently with a twist. For The Star, he was also a martial arts instructor. According to The New York Times, he also had “savings from playing guitar as a sideman in the 1980s for some rock bands.” The Island Packet had him as a former Navy man.

In The Day in 2010, both Mr. Roehmholdt and Barbara Neff, who is in charge of moorings at the pier in New London, applauded Mr. Re’s publicity-drawing craft for its ability to generate public interest in submarines. But his seeming need to mislead about its history struck Ms. Edgecomb as odd, she said last week. One of the biggest red flags in her eyes was the money involved. “How was this guy making his money?” she said she kept asking herself.

Making money, literally, is what first brought John Re to the attention of the police, and reporters. In September of 1995, he was arrested, along with two other men, Geoffrey H. Kennedy, who lived in a neighboring house on Wireless Road in East Hampton, and Brian Huddleston of Brentwood, and charged with printing stacks of $20 bills. Their intent, according to news accounts, was not to pass the bills, but rather to sell them for 25 cents on the dollar.

One of the trio’s first customers was an undercover agent, who agreed to take $10,000 in phony bills in exchange for $2,500 in real cash. The deal was consummated in Brentwood the next day, after which the three were arrested on possession of forged instrument charges. All were eventually sentenced to state prison.

According to The New York Times, when police went to East Hampton, they “found an old Multigraph printer with green ink still wet on its rollers; cans of developer and fixative; photo-engraving plates; stacks of newly printed $20 bills, and several shotguns.”

In addition, The Times said, they confiscated two textbooks borrowed from the East Hampton library: “Photo-Offset Fundamentals” and “Production Planning and Repo Mechanics for Offset Printing.”

As far as the quality of the bills, Samuel Zona of the Secret Service rated the bills a “6 on a 10-point scale,” in the Times article, calling them “passable.”

Sentenced to two and a half to seven years, Mr. Re ended up serving two years at the Riverview correctional facility in Ogdensburg, N.Y.

While there, he filed an appeal to the court, asking for the right to read his pre-sentencing report. While the appeal was denied, it is clear from reading the document, which is on file at the Suffolk County Court complex in Riverside, that Mr. Re spent a good amount of study time putting the appeal together, citing precedents of several cases he thought would help his own.

Released from prison in 1997, Mr. Re began to look for work. One of the businesses he applied to was an East Hampton gallery. The art dealer, who asked that neither he nor the gallery be named, turned him down. Mr. Re returned a couple of months later, asking the gallery owner if he buys paintings and explaining that he had a Picasso.

“He brings it in,” the dealer said Sunday. “I told him, ‘I don’t know where you got this, but take it back; it is not real.’ ” According to the dealer, Mr. Re “insisted it was authentic,” and left the shop.

He returned several weeks later, with two other men. They were carrying three paintings they said were by Winslow Homer. The art dealer told them they, too, were fakes.

“He is a very intelligent guy, a charming guy,” the dealer said. “He could have made a good living out here.”

While the dealer was skeptical, there were many buyers who defended Mr. Re as an art expert and continue to do so to this day. One of those is one of Mr. Re’s first buyers on eBay. In 2000, Mr. Re opened an eBay account using his email address as his ID, which was customary at the time.

In the early days of eBay, there was no differentiation between buyers and sellers in the feedback ratings members left after transactions. Mr. Re built up positive feedback by making a series of purchases beginning on June 20, 2000, with this user ID, which he eventually changed to Hamptons_on_the_water.

In 2001 he began to sell artwork on eBay.

“We love you Jon,” one buyer wrote. “The Picasso is great. You have integrity & honesty. You’re #1.” According to a comment left by Mr. Re, the art work in question had sold on eBay for $2,900.

In the F.B.I. complaint filed in June in the Southern District of New York, Mr. Re is accused of using shill bidders in transactions on eBay.

One of these early buyers, tracked down in upstate New York through eBay, said Monday that he had bought two or three works said to be by Willem de Kooning from Mr. Re in 2001. He would not describe the prices he paid, but according to feedback left after the transactions at least one was for more than $10,000. 

Meredith Savona, an agent for the F.B.I. who specializes in art fraud, said in the June complaint that Mr. Re “had carried out a scheme to defraud purchasers of artwork” from March 2005 to January of this year. The complaint details the alleged sale of almost 60 fake Jackson Pollock paintings for close to $2 million over that period. Mr. Re claimed to have obtained the artwork in 1999 from the basement of an East Hampton woman, Barbara Schulte, who had been in the antiques business with her husband, George. Mr. Schulte had died a few years before that.

“It was the Schulte provenance” that convinced the upstate New York buyer of the artwork’s legitimacy, he said Monday. He spoke on the phone to a woman he still believes was Mrs. Schulte. “She said Re paid for them,” the buyer said. But when he spoke to the woman he knew as Mrs. Schulte a second time, before another purchase, “she recanted,” the buyer said. Mr. Re had told the buyer he’d had a falling out with her, and the buyer believed that this and the fact that she was in a deteriorating mental state due to old age explained her change of story.

The buyer’s understanding was that Mr. Schulte had a collection of de Koonings as well as the Pollocks. “What I remember about the Pollocks is that they were very unusual. They were gouaches,” he said.

“The de Koonings were looked at in the late 1980s. They were brought to Manhattan.” According to the buyer, he was told Mr. Schulte tried to have them authenticated, but was turned away by an expert in the field. The buyer wasn’t bothered by this. He expressed a deep distrust for the established process of authenticating works of art, particularly for the International Foundation for Art Research, which he said is too secretive.

He believes there are probably many works by artists of de Kooning’s and Pollock’s stature that are authentic, but will never be treated as such. “You have to remember, these guys gave their stuff away, for bar bills, for hookers.”

There are two markets for artwork, he believes, the blue-chip market where pieces might go for $300,000 and another for works that have not been authenticated but are real. “Pay $50,000, or $1,500.” He still has the pieces he bought in 2001.

He wasn’t the only one that wrote glowingly of eBay art transactions with Mr. Re. “A lovely painting! Best packing ever!! First-rate seller!!! Thank you!!!!” one happy buyer wrote. “Spectacular work of art!” wrote another. “Outstanding piece, great price, full providence, lightning ship. $21K+ trans,” wrote a third. Mr. Re wrote about one transaction: “Seller very happy with book containing Picasso drawings. $11,600.”

In a telephone conversation recently, Mr. Re said that he had numerous “letters of authenticity” for the Pollock paintings from Mrs. Schulte, that the F.B.I.’s case was weak, and that he would be cleared. He has not returned calls for comment since then. 

In the complaint, Agent Savona said that the low prices for the artwork were a major concern for her. “The prices for the paintings are many multiples below the market prices realized for authentic works by Pollock.”

In the end, the question of authenticity of the works may be irrelevant in the prosecution of Mr. Re.

According to Jerika L. Richardson, senior public affairs officer and director of new media for the United States Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, the Internal Revenue Service has been working in conjunction with the F.B.I. on the case against Mr. Re.

Mr. Re was in East Hampton Town Justice Court on July 17, where he was arraigned on a new charge of felony state income tax fraud in front of East Hampton Town Justice Lisa R. Rana. He asked the court to appoint a legal aid attorney, saying he was indigent. “The I.R.S. has basically shut my business down,” he said. “They won’t let me sell anything. They closed my bank, my eBay account, my PayPal account.”

Justice Rana turned to the matter of bail for the state charge. Mr. Re is free on the federal charge after posting a $150,000 bond. Justice Rana pointed out that there could be more state charges pending. The charge on file at the courthouse is for nonpayment of taxes for only one of the years in question and leaves open the possibility of more charges, Justice Rana said.

“Does it matter that the I.R.S. has already arraigned me, and R.O.R.’d me?” Mr. Re asked Justice Rana. She agreed to release Mr. Re, who is also facing several local misdemeanor charges of driving without a license, without forcing him to post additional bail.

Outside the courtroom, he and his wife, Rhonda Re, declined to talk about the current charges.

 

John Re claims his U.S.S. Deep Quest submarine was built by Lockheed and used by the Navy, but a former exhibits chief for Navy Museums Northwest in Keyport, Wash., says the real Deep Quest is in that museum.