Art Art History

Alec Baldwin and the Case of a New York Swindling

Image courtesy of Reuters.

This is Art History, your weekly primer on the art world’s salacious past. From heists to heartbreaks, CULTURED brings you the most scandalous stories from the history books, guaranteed to dazzle your dinner companions.

Alec Baldwin is a staple in Hollywood, known for his roles in 30 Rock, It’s Complicated, committing involuntary manslaughter, calling his 11-year-old daughter a “thoughtless little pig,” and The Departed. The actor made headlines in each instance, but throughout the 2010s, he was also involved in a scandal of slightly lesser infamy. Starting with an art deal gone sour, Baldwin became embroiled in a years long quest to discover the truth about a suspected forgery costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

In 2010, the actor approached art dealer Mary Boone asking to buy Sea and Mirror by Ross Bleckner, a painting with which Baldwin had become irrevocably infatuated. At that point, he had already been carrying around a photo of the 1996 painting in his briefcase for some years. The two settled on a price tag of $190,000 and a few months later Sea and Mirror landed on Baldwin's doorstep. Unfortunately, once he had the painting in his hands, it didn’t quite resemble the photograph he had come to know so well. The colors were wrong, he remembered, telling The New Yorker that, “they were bright, like M&M’s.”

Ross Bleckner, Sea and Mirror, 1996. Image courtesy of the artist and The New York Times.

Baldwin inquired about the discrepancy, only to be told by Boone that the artist had personally cleaned the canvas as a courtesy. That put an end to the actor's questions, but not his suspicions. Six long years went by before the actor relayed the tale to a few friends who instilled in him a renewed sense of urgency. No legitimate professional would clean a painting in secrecy. What was really going on here?

An expert from Sotheby’s confirmed what Baldwin had already come to realize: the Sea and Mirror in his posession was a forgery. The actor, with his trademark brashness, confronted Bleckner directly. The artist admitted the painting was a copy, as did Boone through a fountain of tears. She offered Baldwin his money back, but the actor didn’t want a refund; he wanted revenge. 

In 2016, Baldwin filed a civil suit in New York State Supreme Court against Boone and her gallery alleging that she had intentionally defrauded him. Boone’s lawyers bit back claiming that Baldwin himself was in on the scheme, a raw lust for the painting persuading him to get as close to the original as possible. In pretrial discovery, Boone’s worst nightmares were realized when a series of incriminating emails turned up. The correspondence referred to aging the forgery and making sure the paint was dry. To keep the truth under covers, Boone signed a seven-figure check with Balwin’s name on it, and settled out of court. 

Since their legal entanglements ended in 2017, Baldwin and Boone have gone their separate ways. Last the public heard of Sea and Mirror, it was being kept in a crate in the basement of the actor’s Hamptons home. The lastest news from Boone is that she was sentenced to jail time in 2019 for tax fraud at her gallery. Always one to leverage a loophole when she spots it, the art dealer was let out early due to a spike in COVID cases.