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Art, obsession and greed

It’s not often a cup of coffee results in a lawsuit, but that’s exactly what happened to mural artist Peter Teekamp.

During a brief stint in Bremerton, Teekamp was at Chimorro’s Restaurant on Fourth Street for a morning java fix when a framed drawing on the wall caught his attention. The picture didn’t look like much — it was a black and white drawing of two women sitting on the beach. It was the kind of picture an untrained eye would look at, consider for a second, then disregard.

But Teekamp’s was not an untrained eye. He is an artist with a borderline-unhealthy obsession with the French impressionist Paul Gauguin. Gauguin is commonly regarded as a father of modern-day impressionists. Other artists and scholars look at Gauguin’s legacy and see a man who died flat broke and was unable to support his own children. Teekamp sees a misunderstood artist who made profound statements about capitalism and preserving pristine environments. Gauguin was facing a prison sentence at the time of his 1903 death for defying authority. After Gauguin died, most of his paintings were sold at auction or simply destroyed.

Teekamp has been studying Gauguin’s works for nearly four decades and is currently working on a book about Gauguin.

Teekamp would know a Gauguin sketch if he saw one.

And he was fairly sure he did see one: it was one entitled “Tahitian Women,” which Gauguin sketched in his first of two trips to Tahiti. The sketch would have been the precursor to the painting, as Gauguin used charcoal sketches to create the outlines for his paintings. While he sketched, he used a type of carbon copy paper to create duplicates. The duplicates became the paintings.

The sketch hanging on the wall at Chimarro’s piqued Teekamp’s interest. Teekamp called Chimarro’s owner Mel Sablan over to his table and pointed out the drawing. Sablan explained it had been in the Sablan family for at least four generations. His great-grandmother somehow acquired it and kept it rolled up in a protective sleeve. The great-grandmother passed it down to her daughter, Sablan’s grandmother, who lived in Guam. When the Japanese invaded Guam in 1941, the family fled its home and took up residence in a cave. One of the few possessions Sablan’s grandmother took was the charcoal sketch, still in its protective sleeve. When Sablan found the sketch in his mother’s attic in 1991, he asked if he could have it. To him, it was a family heirloom and he wanted to frame it and hang it on the wall in a restaurant he was going to open in Bremerton. Sablan told Teekamp when he unrolled the picture to have it framed, he got charcoal on his hands. The word “charcoal” set off artistic alarm bells in Teekamp’s head.

The Sablan’s family history also fit into the time line of the sketch, which was done in 1891.

Teekamp paid for his coffee and left the restaurant. But he couldn’t forget what he may have seen.

The next day, Teekamp went back to Chimorro’s with one of his books about Gauguin in hand.

“This is what I think you have,” Teekamp told Sablan, pointing to a picture of the painting “Tahitian Women.”

If Sablan did have the sketch, it could be worth millions.

Teekamp returned to the restaurant a couple more times to see the sketch and drew in his business associate and co-author Michelle Moshay of North Bend. She, too, was a Gauguin scholar.

On Dec. 16, they briefly discussed the drawing and what it could be, emphasizing it may not be the original. The authentication process could take years, they told Sablan. When Teekamp went outside for a smoke break, Moshay and Sablan talked about the sketch. More importantly, they talked about what the sketch might be.

According to Moshay, Sablan became antsy about the possibility the sketch could be the real McCoy. Sablan, who declined comment through his attorney, Seattle-based Michael Tompkins, was hard up for cash and was going to sell the sketch for $5,000 at the first available opportunit, Sablan said.

“I told him ‘You don’t want to do that. You don’t know what you have,’” Moshay said. “I told him we needed to go through the right steps to make sure it’s real, to keep cool and keep it to himself.”

In response, Moshay said, Sablan told her he didn’t know what to do and asked the pair to help him.

Moshay and Teekamp agreed to assist Sablan, she said. At this point, Sablan told Teekamp about wanting to sell the painting immediately. Teekamp offered to buy the painting because he thought finding a bonafide Gauguin would make a great ending for his book, he said.

Teekamp also insists he didn’t care about the money; he believes it was his destiny to find the sketch. If the sketch is real, it would make a great ending for his book; if the sketch is not real, it would make an interesting chapter for his book.

On Dec. 17, the three sat down together and drew up a contract.

Moshay and Teekamp say the sketch was purchased out-right for $5,000. To prove the money was secondary to finding a possible rare piece of art, Teekamp built a clause into the contract: if the sketch was real and it were sold at auction, Teekamp would take his $5,000 back out of the proceeds of the sale, then the remainder of the sale would be split 50-50. In the contract, which is part of a one-inch legal file in the Kitsap County Superior Court, it was agreed on by both parties that they would keep in touch during the authentication process. The process would require photographs of the sketch being sent to professionals in New York, Moshay said. Once the sale was complete, Teekamp took the sketch out of the frame. The framing job, which Moshay described as “tragic,” entailed the sketch having to be glued a hard surface; after about 100 years of being rolled up, the sketch protested being laid flat. After Teekamp examined the sketch and took photographs, the sketch was placed in a secure location.

On Jan. 22, Teekamp was surprised by an unpleasant visit from Tompkins. Tompkins, representing Sablan, pounded on Teekamp’s downtown apartment door so hard it scared Teekamp into thinking he was in danger. Teekamp called 911. Teekamp was shocked to find out Tompkins was at his door to serve him with a restraining order and a document demanding he give up the whereabouts of the sketch. In a lawsuit filed by Tompkins against Teekamp and Moshay, Sablan expressed concern the two were going to take the sketch out of the state and/or country to an auction, sell it and he would receive no proceeds from the sale, which would cause Sablan “irrepairable financial harm.”

According to the lawsuit, Sablan was under the impression the $5,000 “was an investment to secure an option in determining the validity and authenticity of said drawing.” He claims he was “coerced” into the contract.

Since the time Teekamp was served with the lawsuit, the sketch has been confiscated by the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office for safekeeping and is being held on a $5,000 bond.

While the sketch remained in impound, the three awaited the next step: a court date was set for Friday in Superior Court to sort out who, exactly, owns the sketch. The court case took place after press time, so the results are unavailable.

For now, the legal ownership of the sketch hangs in the balance.

The irony of the sketch being impounded and lawsuits flying back and forth is that as of yet, the sketch has not been authenticated. According to an e-mail Moshay received from Liz Clark of Christie’s auction house, it is Christie’s opinion “it is not authentic and it is perhaps a later study by a follower of Gauguin.”

Regardless, Teekamp still thinks it was his fate to find the painting. He is inspired by one of Gauguin’s most famous quotes: “Perhaps one day, after my art has opened everyone’s eyes, some enthusiastic soul will come and rescue me from the gutter.”

See next week’s Patriot for the continuing saga of Teekamp, Moshay and Sablan.

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