In 1994, the Los Angeles artist James Hayward dreamt that he murdered an art collector. At the time, he was broke and desperate to make a sale.
The dream went something like this: Hayward went to meet his dealer, the famed Douglas Chrismas, at a collector’s lavish house. When he arrived, he was surprised to see the collector already owned work by him—a heavy envelope made of lead that he could not remember making or selling. “You were warned, and often,” the dream version of Hayward’s wife Sue told him. Hayward became enraged. He pulled a medieval ax down from the fireplace mantle and hacked away at the collector and his two bodyguards. The dream ended with Chrismas standing dumbfounded in pools of blood. Shortly after Hayward awoke––according to a short story that he published in 2010—Chrismas called, and the artist recounted the dream. Unfazed, the fictionalized Chrismas told him to write it down: “I bet I can sell it for you.”
“It’s a dream. You can’t be held responsible for a dream,” Hayward said when I first interviewed him about Chrismas in 2016. “That Doug’s alive is the only proof we need that the art world is a civilized place.”
Douglas Chrismas, the founder of Los Angeles’s storied blue-chip Ace Gallery and an early promoter of talents like Richard Serra, Michael Heizer and Ed Ruscha, has often inspired rage in associates. He moved to L.A. in 1966, and opened his first gallery in the city soon after.
Allegations have trailed him at least since the early 1970s. He’s been accused of fabricating artists’ works, failing to return unsold artworks, withholding payments, and financial mismanagement. Several years before Hayward had his vengeaful dream, sculptor Donald Judd took out an ad in Artforum accusing Ace of holding an exhibition “wrongly attributed” to the artist. A decade before that, Andy Warhol complained of missing payments from Chrismas.
But none of the accusations ever seemed to stick. Despite Chrismas’s reputation, his roster teemed with sought-after artists for decades and his galleries grew bigger and more ornate.
Even after years embroiled in bankruptcies, Chrismas seemed untouchable. That is until last July, when the dealer was charged with three federal counts of embezzlement. The following day, he was out on $50,000 bail, attending the Felix Art Fair at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. This May, a federal court ordered Chrismas to pay $14.2 million in a bankruptcy case that has dragged on since 2013. With a federal trial scheduled for January, after three delays, that could put the dealer in prison if convicted, Chrismas might finally be out of luck.
But the question of how Chrismas persisted for so long, and how decades of allegations of failure to pay and disappearing artworks finally escalated to the current money laundering and embezzlement charges, speaks to the opacity of the art market and the millions of dollars sloshing around in it. For artists and art-world observers, Chrismas’s case provides a remarkably full look behind a curtain that rarely gets pulled this far back.