Rivals Scorn His Santa Fe Gallery, but Forrest Fenn Baskets the Cash

updated 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Forrest Fenn is a Santa Fe, N.Mex. art dealer with a bustling, eight-room gallery, but one of his most prized acquisitions is a 36-inch alligator, Beowulf, who inhabits a pond on the gallery grounds. In artsy Santa Fe, riddled with some 110 galleries, lots of folks think they detect a resemblance between Beowulf and his owner.

It is an unkind comparison, no doubt the result of professional envy of a colleague who makes big waves and bigger bucks. The controversial and flamboyant Fenn grosses about $6 million a year by flouting tradition. His collection may politely be called eclectic: a jumble of Indian artifacts and curios, mixed with expensive paintings and bronzes. He openly sells forgeries of Modigliani, Monet and Degas, and he gets good money for them to boot. Indignant colleagues grumble, but Fenn doesn't snap like an alligator; he only smiles like one. He gets most of the celebrity collectors who come to town.

Charming one moment, gruff the next, Fenn admits that his flair has created a flap. "The art business is like religion," he says. "You can lose money or break even, but if you make money, you get a dirty name." That doesn't sound quite like a definition of religion nor does it appease his detractors. "Forrest is a great promoter," says Gerald Peters, whose Santa Fe gallery competes with Fenn's. "He has a marvelous sense of the moment." Los Angeles gallery owner Steve Rose, who frequently does business with Fenn admires his style but understands why others don't "For one thing he's a better merchandiser than most of us," Rose says "and he makes a lot of money. Most of the dealers who have grumbled about him are small ones who are jealous of his success."

Fenn makes no claims to the finer things in the art business. A high school graduate who put in 20 years as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, he arrived in Santa Fe 14 years ago with a shoe shine, a smile and $20,000 in savings, and set himself up in a business he knew little about. "I never studied art, didn't own a painting and didn't know anybody who did," he says. But the pilot, who says he survived 328 combat missions in Vietnam, is adept at landing on his feet. "It doesn't matter who you are," he argues, "it only matters who they think you are. It's true in Hollywood, in politics and it's true with a painting."

Following that principle, Fenn tucked his showrooms off Santa Fe's main strip and enclosed them behind 11-foot-high adobe-and-stone walls. In addition to the pond, the elegant grounds feature a garden, exotic birds and three guest houses. One of them, attached to the gallery, is stocked with volumes of books, fine wines and $1 million in art. When the rich visit Santa Fe, Fenn scoops them up at the airport in his limo and lodges them free of charge in one of the houses. Jackie Onassis, former President Ford and Cher are among those who have been pampered with catered meals, a Jacuzzi, steam room and a masseuse. Many, notably Steve Martin, have also bought art.

One of Fenn's repeat customers is Robert Redford, who collects Eric Sloane oils priced up to $15,000. Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange picked up Western art, and Steven Spielberg carted away a Charles Russell bronze. Ethel Kennedy bought an antique Chinese incense burner and raved about it. "One day," says Fenn, "Andy Williams came in and said, 'Ethel Kennedy said I just had to come in.' There were about 50 people in the room and all their eyes went zonk."

Suzanne Somers met Fenn during a search for a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. "He is an incredible host," says Somers. "To lie in the bed in that guest house and see the most incredible library and be surrounded by fabulous art and pueblo pottery was a feast." Guests aren't obligated to buy, but as one art colleague puts it, "Forrest doesn't miss a chance." Nearly everything—furnishings, artwork, baskets—carries a price tag. At the end of her stay, Somers had bought several Navajo rugs and some Indian jewelry. As for starting her O'Keeffe collection, she says, "When I do decide to buy one, it will be from Forrest."

Fenn encourages gallery browsing with signs that read: "Please touch. We are responsible." Customers can handle any of 2,000 Indian bowls, moccasins and arrowheads. Big spenders might be drawn to a $375,000 painting that Corot signed on his deathbed, or a $350,000 Remington bronze. Fenn's collection of fine fakes (owned in partnership with Texas' ex-Gov. John Connally) is the work of the late master forger Elmyr de Hory, who fooled many an expert in his time. But why sell phonies? Says Fenn: "If you love it less when you see the signature who now is the fake?" That challenge has shamed buyers into taking 26 De Horys so far, at $9,500 a shot.

Fenn claims an inventory worth $20 million and presides over it all with a staff of 16 and a seemingly cavalier attitude. "Does the guy at One Hour Martinizing love dirty clothes?" Fenn asks, knowing the answer full well. "Does the guy selling used cars like clunkers? Art is a business, and what I love is the business. I'm not particularly into art."

Fenn, who was born 55 years ago in Temple, Texas, has a bottom-line style that was shaped in the Air Force, where he won 25 decorations, including the Silver Star. Stationed in Lubbock, Texas at the end of his stint, he began buying sculptures from struggling artists and casting limited-edition bronzes of them. Some of the bronzes he sold for cash, but the rest he traded for Indian artifacts. When he was ready for retirement, the hobby provided an inventory for opening an art gallery, which seemed the logical next step.

The business allows Fenn and his wife of 32 years, Peggy, to live comfortably in a spectacularly appointed apartment over the gallery. Fenn collects rare and historical books and takes an occasional day off for a desert walk, fishing or piloting his single-engine airplane. "When I was a kid," he says, by way of explaining his passion, "I played Monopoly. I have always thought of myself as one who plays Monopoly. That's what I'm doing here."

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