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Conned by an artist

December 6th, 2007

My impression of Luc Sonnet was that he loved to exaggerate.

Sonnet, an artist who until recently lived in Dumfries, told me:

“I can still throw a 50-yard pass through the eye of a needle.”

And “At 3 years old I started doing classic realism.

And, about one of his pieces of art, “You’d have to write a dissertation on that one.”

The first two claims made it into my Aug. 9 story, “Spiritual Machines.”

I felt comfortable enough to use these quotes because they were clearly hyperbole. I felt they added insight to Sonnet’s character.

He was a difficult subject. I couldn’t follow much of what he said. My notes from that conversation are a jumbled mess of words like “unification” and “spiritual truth.” Most of our discussion was about his spirituality and its reflection in his artwork. But, in the hour or so I spent with him, I gathered enough material about Sonnet and his artwork to craft a short profile.

Turns out I missed the biggest exaggeration – no, fabrication – of all: Luc Sonnet himself.

According to a Dec. 2 story in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Luc Sonnet is actually Richard Carl Grossman, an ex-con who spent 32 months in prison after pleading guilty to fraud and money laundering.

In addition, The Inquirer wrote that Grossman suffers from mental afflictions, which oscillate between ambition and depression.

“Posing as a visionary psychologist, he defrauded a dozen financial institutions that had lent him nearly $18 million for a chain of dial-in, all-hours $1-per-minute counseling clinics that never opened,” wrote Inquirer staff writers Larry King and Kathleen Brady Shea.

Once out of prison, the article continued, Grossman created Luc Sonnet, a Francophile artist.

As Sonnet, he bragged about an internship with Pablo Picasso, dating Kate Moss and hanging out with Andy Warhol, The Inquirer wrote. According to the Inquirer, Grossman’s alter ego duped art galleries, the chairman of the Bucks’ County, Pa., Democratic Committee and three newspapers, including your Potomac News and Manassas Journal Messenger.

Grossman came to this area in June, to move in with his girlfriend, Sandra Birdsong, who worked for the FBI, the Inquirer article said. Grossman and Birdsong did not immediately return phone calls for this column.

But here’s what happened:

A few months ago, Grossman – as Sonnet – contacted my editor and made his pitch: He’d just moved to the area and was making waves with his “abstract spiritualism” artwork. I took the assignment.

This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. As a small community newspaper, we try to cover just about every local artist doing something interesting or unique. I’ve written that story many times before and I’m sure I’ll do it again.

I met with Grossman, toured his studio, spoke with some of his art associates and local dealers. I filed a short profile, emphasizing his artwork, spiritual background and ideas (as best as I could understand them).

There was some back and forth with Grossman, before my article’s publication, about whether or not he would sign with Ed Chasen, a Georgetown art dealer who wanted exclusive rights to sell the artwork. I interviewed Chasen and he had some glowing things to say about “Sonnet.”

However, The Inquirer wrote that the Chasen deal fell through three weeks before our article appeared. Either the deal fell through after I spoke with Chasen and Grossman lied to me (probable) or The Inquirer got the dates wrong (possible).

Still, The Inquirer slammed our article on four grounds, after allowing that it was more “toned down” than previous articles which had repeated the Picasso lie. There was the football claim, which is clearly hyperbole.

“How Sonnet had landed in Dumfries, the story did not say,” wrote the Inquirer. “Nor did it mention his new muse, in whose house he was holding forth.”

OK, but people move across the country to be with a significant other every day. I left that out, because, to the best of my recollection, Birdsong wanted to be left out of the article, due to her employment with the FBI.

My notes show that Birdsong and I exchanged voicemails. I have no record of any conversation (nor can I remember one). Ana Pimsler, the staff photographer who took Grossman’s picture, told me that she remembered Birdsong asked not to be photographed.

For us, this is nothing out of the ordinary – many people in the area have sensitive government jobs and ask that I not mention them. Since I cover local arts and entertainment, the government jobs typically have no bearing on my stories. My editor and I usually grant these requests.

The last claim the Inquirer slammed us on was a statement I attributed. Grossman told me the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was interested in doing a show of his work, but that it fell through due to a lack of time.

According to the The Inquirer, this was news to the archdiocese.

Thankfully, attributing a lie is not as bad as printing a lie.

Before we ran the story, I did a Google search and found a story in the Jewish Exponent, a weekly paper serving the Philadelphia region. The story said Grossman (as Sonnet) had an internship with Picasso at 17. I called Grossman to confirm – he hadn’t mentioned this to me, and if true, I had my lead.

I suppose I dodged a bullet here – Grossman told me that they misunderstood him, he never had that internship.

Why tell the truth here? I suspect – and this is just a guess – the Chasen deal was heating up, and if he was going to become a legitimately represented artist, he might have to rein in some of the lies.

Combing through my story, I find a couple of un-attributed claims. Taking his word for it, I wrote: “He’s donated artwork to charities like the American Heart Association and the Cancer Society, as well as various Christian and Judaic charities.” That stands out as the most problematic.

There are a few facts, such as he studied at SUNY-Binghamton and the show at the Irvine Auditorium, corroborated by The Inquirer story.

(Oh, and according to Northern Virginia Community College Art History professor Elizabeth Tebow, there might not even be any real art movement called “classic realism.” She said the term was “very confusing.”)

One final note about Grossman.

He became uncomfortable only once during our interview. He was talking in abstract terms about his spirituality and I pressed for more information about his religious background. Where did he go to church as a child? What denomination? He told me he was Jewish and became very uneasy.

“Is that a problem?” he asked.

I waved my hand, dismissively and told him I was Jewish as well. He relaxed, and continued his story, weaving fact and fiction.

Click here to read Josh’s orginial story “Spiritual Machines.”

To read The Philadephia Inquirer’s story go to http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/20071202_ARTof_theCon.html

 

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

 

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