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 vengeful 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.
The Bankruptcy That Never Ended
Chrismas’s ongoing downfall began with a bankruptcy.
Eight years before his arrest, Chrismas, operating as Art & Architecture Books of the 21st Century (and doing business as Ace Gallery), filed for Chapter 11. It was hardly his first one. Chrismas had declared before, under his own name and various business names—Flow Ace Gallery, Flow Inc.—but he’d always been able to keep his crown jewel out of the firing line. Not anymore.
For three years, Chrismas dragged out negotiations with Ace’s creditors. Then they became fed up and asked the court to appoint a professional to bring the gallery’s house in order. The court appointed Sam Leslie, a licensed forensic accountant and experienced fiduciary, as the gallery’s bankruptcy trustee and “de facto CEO,” as Leslie put it at the time. The original intent had been for Chrismas to work alongside Leslie.
“I’m thrilled,” Chrismas told the New York Times shortly after Leslie’s appointment in 2016. “I can now focus on what everyone says I do best, which is curatorial and sales.”
But as soon as Leslie stepped into his new role, he discovered one impropriety after another, each alleged in his filings to the bankruptcy court—money transferred from Ace to other entities, artworks moved from the premises, and repeated calls from artists requesting compensation or the return of missing artwork.
“Given all that I have learned,” Leslie reported to the court less than a month after his appointment, “I can no longer trust Chrismas to assist me.”
Hours before Leslie’s first official exhibition opening for Ace, he confirmed to me that he’d fired Chrismas, meaning that, for the first time in over 50 years, Chrismas wasn’t at the helm. That first exhibition under Leslie’s tenure was a group show with work pulled from the gallery’s sprawling inventory; at the time, Ace had at least 2,750 artworks in its possession, more than some museums. Leslie was optimistic that without Chrismas in the way, he could manage one of L.A.’s biggest galleries, while rebuilding relationships with artists and cleaning up the books. But art is a hard business in the best of circumstances and Leslie, who had never run a gallery, was now helming one with a long, mercurial history.
To make matters worse, Chrismas refused to fully step aside and is accused of becoming something of a saboteur—and remaining one in the six years since Leslie took over.
“He’s competing with us. He’s undermining our sales. He’s doing everything possible to damage our business,” Victor Sahn, one of Leslie’s lawyers, said at a court hearing in mid-2020, after Chrismas’s lawyers once again asked the judge to allow the dealer to enter the gallery to conduct an “inventory.”
When Leslie tried selling artwork through auctions, Chrismas allegedly called auction houses and questioned the work’s provenance. According to Ryland Behrens, a sales director Leslie brought on in 2017 (he has since left), a collector pulled out of a 2018 sale, saying they had “made a deal with Doug” instead.
“He’s had one of the longest bankruptcies I’ve heard of,” said Frederick Nicholas in 2021. A philanthropist, art collector, and retired lawyer, Nicholas has known Chrismas for over half a century.
It’s still dragging on.
The Making of A Legend
In 1961, Chrismas founded Ace Gallery in Vancouver, his hometown. He was just 17, and he opened the gallery during summer vacation. He began befriending New York artists before he moved to L.A. in 1966—he said he chose the West Coast city on the advice of Andy Warhol and because he wanted to show some of the same artists as New York dealer Leo Castelli. “We had very similar taste buds,” Chrismas explained via email in 2022. “I did not want to intrude on [Castelli’s] territory.”
His first space was in a warehouse on La Peer Drive in West Hollywood, on the floor below the invitation-only nightclub The Factory, where he showed Sol LeWitt and John McCracken. Then in 1969, he moved to Westwood, taking over the lease of famed patron (and 3M heiress) Virginia Dwan, whose gallery had introduced L.A. to French artist Yves Klein and Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely. The Westwood gallery was an impressive space, beautifully renovated by Dwan before Chrismas took over and boasting large display windows and an arched entrance. There, Chrismas removed the wood floors and architectural flourishes, and began to define himself by exhibiting artists associated with Minimalism and the Light and Space movement—and soon thereafter, Land Art, which Dwan’s gallery had been among the first to support.
His early championing of Land artists, Minimalists, and Light and Space artists made his reputation: Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Michael Heizer, De Wain Valentine. In later years, some of these artists and others would wage battles with the dealer (Judd published his angry open letter in Art in America after taking out his Artforum ad; Valentine sued for the return of his work, and was still waiting for resolution when Leslie took over).
Ace thrived during a time when Los Angeles had relatively few contemporary art galleries—critic Peter Schjeldahl once called Chrismas “the most visible” blue-chip dealer in the city—and endured in a largely unregulated art market. Always seeming to stand apart from the city’s burgeoning gallery scenes, Chrismas rarely gave press interviews, and presented himself as an outlier in his own press releases (he frequently describes Ace as the original white cube).
Allegations of impropriety became part of the gallery’s mythos. As L.A. Times critic William Wilson wrote in 1987, “[Chrismas has] weathered so much controversy that his operation somehow always seems new.” This tendency to see the scandals as a mark of ingenuity reflects the industry’s interest in appearances over transparency, a bias which has frequently led to suffering, especially for artists.
“He loves art more than the artist,” French artist Orlan said in an email translated into English by her studio assistant. Orlan, who had by 2021 recovered 10 works that Ace had in its possession with the help of the bankruptcy trustee, says she is still waiting on payment for two works Ace allegedly sold.
That Chrismas loves art is not in dispute. Many have praised him for his refined taste. Artist John Millet mentioned the dealer’s cunning “eye.” De Wain Valentine said there was no doubt about his “great visual acuity.” Even Chrismas noted his own ability to present works “in a manner that displays the inner language of the artist,” in a 2013 written court testimony.
In 1970, Chrismas left Westwood for Venice, where he had a series of spaces near the beach. The Venice galleries are the stuff of legend—quite literally, because it’s difficult to find photographs of them. In 1972, Ace/Venice opened at 72 Market Street, Robert Irwin’s former studio, which Irwin had lent to the experimental Market Street Program, an exciting project that showcased performances by Chris Burden and also staged three all-women exhibitions just as feminist art took hold in the city. Then, facing city fines for using and altering the building without proper permits, Irwin sold the building to Chrismas. Once the space became Ace/Venice, Irwin exhibited his site-specific Room Angle Light Volume there, one of his first scrim installations, using transparent polyester, light, and shadow to generate a bewitching sense of volume. But, according to the artist, the dealer did not honor the sales agreement. “He never paid me a cent,” Irwin said in a 2013 oral history. Chrismas countered via email that he was eventually able to pay Irwin for the space, allowing that it “took a significant effort,” since “real estate then, in Venice Beach, was not bankable.”
In 1976, while still operating Ace/Venice, Chrismas opened a space in the former home of the iconic Ferus Gallery, the first gallery to give Warhol a solo exhibition. His appetite for appropriating historically important spaces was highly attuned, if already sticky—even as he continued to frame himself as the one true original.
Chrismas had long played up Ace’s historic status. In his 2013 written testimony, he claimed that he “created the first White Cube contemporary art space as we know it today” and that Ace is the “oldest contemporary gallery in the Western United States”—which is arguably true given that Kantor Gallery, founded in the 1940s and still open in West Hollywood, has closed on and off over the years.
Some have found it hard to see how Chrismas’s eye for art and spaces served anyone but himself.
“He’s not in it for the art,” said Hayward. “It’s more about control.”
Keeping Artists Under His Thumb
Chrismas has always been good at seducing artists.
Early on, he began offering monthly stipends—an approach Peggy Guggenheim adopted in the 1950s to keep Jackson Pollock afloat and working. “It wasn’t financially easy to do,” Chrismas said via email in 2022, “but I tried to give artists support as much as I could.” This is how he lured Light and Space artist Doug Wheeler in the late 1960s, offering the artist a stipend of $1,000 per month. Wheeler ended up leaving the gallery by 1971. The last straw, the artist recalled in a 2017 oral history, came when Chrismas supposedly tried to incite a feud between Wheeler and Robert Irwin. Regardless, the stipend was how he kept the artist Mary Corse, who began showing with Ace in 1986 and, after leaving in 2017, got representation with Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Lisson Gallery, and Lehmann Maupin and later Pace.
Chrismas also attracted Hayward this way. He began exhibiting Hayward and his thick, wily abstractions in 1990 after offering the painter $2,000 monthly. Hayward had been struggling to make half that some months; the promise of security was attractive. Soon after he signed on, he attended a party honoring the painter Ed Moses at Morton’s Steakhouse. Artist Ed Ruscha, a longtime peer who was represented by Ace from 1973 to 1981, pulled him aside.
“Did you get consignment sheets from Doug?” Ruscha asked. Hayward told him that he’d gotten seven pages for work he handed over. “I want you to go home tonight and look at your consignment sheets,” Ruscha cautioned. Hayward took the advice, and found a mistake on each page. Hayward returned them to the gallery and asked for corrections, to ensure he would have valid recourse if anything ever happened to any of his works.
“I never saw another consignment sheet again,” Hayward said.
One day, Hayward was at Ace when an older female collector came in. In Hayward’s recollection, Chrismas glided up to her and said, “I dreamt I had this incredibly difficult and beautiful painting and I wanted you to have it.” Chrismas then led the collector to an abstraction by Hayward and offered a 25 percent discount. The price he gave, however, was considerably higher than Hayward’s typical retail.
Chrismas does not recall this exchange. “If I was to offer a discount,” he said in a 2016 email, “it would be a real discount.”
Hayward is not the only artist to accuse Chrismas of exhibiting and selling artworks in objectionable ways. Like Judd, sculptor Carl Andre published a letter to the editor in Art in America in 1990, accusing Ace of exhibiting an unauthorized “Refabricated” work of his. Chrismas said collector Giuseppe Panza authorized the reproduction. Andre said the collector had no such authority. Multiple sources claimed that, in the same 1989 show that included work by Judd and Andre, Ace had exhibited an unauthorized version of Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1972 sculpture Open House. David Zwirner Gallery, which represents Matta-Clark’s estate, said it could find no record of an authorized exhibition of Open House at Ace. When I approached Chrismas with this information in 2016, he asked if he could be put in touch with Zwirner’s registrar.
In 2009, photographer Tierney Gearon, who had exhibited with Ace once, met with Chrismas about future opportunities. Sitting in his office filled with art books, Gearon recalls thinking that Chrismas seemed more sensitive than the wheeler-dealers she knew. Then, she said, he asked her to sign an exclusive contract that would violate her agreement with her London gallery and insisted she share her PR agent’s contact list. She never signed anything. Later, she learned that Ace had sold numerous photographs from her “Explosure” series—whimsical scenes superimposed upon one another and printed at an impressive scale—when multiple collectors told her they owned them, and had bought them from the gallery. She said she did not receive payments. Chrismas said he does not recall asking Gearon to violate her agreement with another gallery or selling the “Explosure” prints.
“That guy is a gangster,” said Gearon.
An Avalanche of Lawsuits
Chrismas was first taken to court in the mid-1970s, when artist Robert Motherwell sued him over the disappearance of nine works, but it was in the mid 1980s that allegations first stuck.
In 1986, Chrismas spent three days in jail on felony grand theft charges. According to the felony complaint, the late Vancouver collector Frederick Stimpson accused Chrismas of losing works totaling $1.2 million that he’d left at Ace for safekeeping. The most expensive piece, Robert Rauschenberg’s Rodeo Palace (1976), Stimpson paid $600,000 for; the other alleged missing works included three more by Rauschenberg, one by Frank Stella, one by Warhol, and an untitled sculpture by Donald Judd. Chrismas had used Rodeo Palace as collateral for a $200,000 bank loan; the bank had seized the artwork.
“The art world kind of keeps these things to themselves,” LAPD detective Dorothy A. Pathe told the L.A. Times at the time, “but I think that when our victim realized that his collection was gone, he didn’t really have any choice but to come to us.”
Stimpson later opted to enter into a payment agreement with the dealer, perpetually delaying sentencing for the next 15 years as Chrismas slowly paid back the collector and then, following his death, his estate. Chrismas refused to say how long it took to pay Stimpson back.
“Regarding Frederick Stimpson, I can say that the family continues to have me sell works from its collection,” the dealer said.
Between 1982 and his stint in jail, Chrismas had filed for bankruptcy three times, under his gallery’s name and his own. None of it seemed to slow his business, and he moved Ace into a beautiful, labyrinthine Art Deco building on Wilshire Boulevard in 1986. In 1994, Chrismas opened a massive 25,000-square-foot gallery on Hudson Street in New York. Then, despite filing for bankruptcy again in 1999, he opened a high-ceilinged, white-walled space in Beverly Hills, blocks from Gagosian, in 2001.
Over the last 30 years, Chrismas has operated ten gallery spaces in North America—in Vancouver and Mexico City, in addition to LA and New York—and has run short-lived spaces in Paris, Berlin, and Beijing. Until late 2016, Ace had three locations in L.A. alone. Chrismas’s prestige, bolstered by the size of his galleries, continued to hold a special allure for major artists, even as the gallerist’s suspect practices were reported in local newspapers and by word of mouth, as multiple artists confirm.
“Ace did things that the County Museum [LACMA] wouldn’t do,” said Light and Space artist Laddie John Dill, who began showing with Ace in the 2010s but has known the dealer for years. Dill cited examples like Ace/Venice’s 1977 exhibition of Michael Heizer’s Displaced/Replaced Mass, which required digging up portions of the floor so that boulders could be dropped deep in the ground.
At the Beverly Hills location, Chrismas staged a retrospective of Sam Francis paintings. When I asked Nicholas, Chrismas’s longtime associate and formerly the executor of Francis’ estate, why he chose to exhibit this work with Chrismas given all he knew, the philanthropist and retired lawyer was blunt: The estate had a huge inventory of unsold paintings that diverged from the style that made Francis famous. Chrismas convinced Nicholas that he could sell every single painting. Chrismas kept his word. “Selling meaningful works of art has never been a problem for me,” the dealer said in a 2022 email. “So yes, the paintings did sell.”
But, by the mid-2000s, Chrismas’s house of cards began to tumble.
Citing the economic ramifications of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Chrismas closed the New York gallery in 2005. The following year, artist Keith Sonnier filed a suit against Chrismas and Ace, alleging that he was in “wrongful possession” of 18 artworks by Sonnier collectively valued at $2.83 million. Three months after that, sculptor Jannis Kounellis sued, alleging “improprieties” and the wrongful retaining of profits and consigned artworks worth over $4 million. At the time Kounnellis said Chrismas had been “defrauding artists, clients and art collectors for nearly 30 years,” and he wanted it to stop.
In 2008, Seth Landsberg, an investor who helms a foundation named after himself, sued Chrismas, alleging that he and San Francisco dealer Nancy Wandlass sold him a Lichtenstein painting stolen from the Brazilian government (Wandlass pleaded guilty to a federal embezzlement charge, and received three years of probation). The two dealers had allegedly helped Edemar Cid Feirrera, a Brazilian banker and art collector, smuggle the Lichtenstein and a Basquiat painting into the US using falsified customs documents. Feirrera had been convicted on money laundering and fraud charges in 2006, but when Brazilian authorities seized his assets, they discovered much of his art was missing. Chrismas settled with Landsberg in 2010 for $1.79 million, but as of bankruptcy proceedings in 2013, Ace was still on record for owing over $1.6 million of that money. In 2015, Interpol seized the Lichtenstein and sent it back to Brazil.
In 2011, Ace allegedly pledged 16 artworks—by Rauschenberg, Francis, and Julian Schnabel—as loan collateral. But Ace didn’t own the works – they were owned by Vancouver collector Eric Wilson, Ace’s largest single creditor, who had left the works at the gallery for storage.
Then, in 2012, Vivian and Alan Hassenfeld, philanthropists with a fortune from Hasbro Toys, paid Ace over $160,000 for artworks they never received. Chrismas agreed to repay the Hassenfelds in installments. But, by 2013, Chrismas had defaulted on those payments, just before filing for bankruptcy the final time, according to court documents.
As Sam Leslie and his lawyers have alleged repeatedly, these pre-bankruptcy litigations evidence “a pattern of wrongful behavior” that exacerbated Ace’s financial problems.
Chrismas, as is typical, waved off the bankruptcies and the lawsuits.
“The entire Chapter 11 situation is over one month’s late rent,” Chrismas told me via e-mail in 2016. Hurricane Sandy damaged many Chelsea galleries and brought “the art world to a screeching halt.” The slowdown caused him to fall behind on payments to his landlord and other creditors, he added.
(Chrismas’s own statements to the court acknowledged that problems with payments predated the hurricane, but he attributed these earlier issues to inaccurate charges from his landlord.)
Chrismas also believed his landlord, Associated Estates Realty Corporation (AERC), the corporate owner of Ace’s Wilshire building, wanted to evict him to maximize “its own profits” on a residential housing project. There may be some truth to that statement. When Ace signed the Wilshire lease in 1987, Chrismas negotiated a purchase option for the building and the adjacent lot. AERC did indeed want to build a housing project in the adjacent lot and so, in 2012, it paid Ace $4 million to buy out the option. After receiving that payment, the gallery stopped paying rent and almost all the $4 million was transferred to Ace Museum, Chrismas’s nonprofit, as court documents allege.
Chrismas had also cannily inserted into the lease that the adjacent complex had to be designed by Frank Gehry or some other “acclaimed architect.” He told the court he believed AERC didn’t intend abide by that requirement; AERC said the lease was invalidated due to non-payment. The company eventually used Architect Orange, a firm known for retail centers, to build its nondescript housing complex.
Chrismas is “more a real estate maven than an art dealer,” lawyer Tony Nicholas, Frederick Nicholas’s son, said of the Wilshire debacle.
The Curious Case of the Ace “Museum” and Ace Gallery NYC
Founded as a non-profit in 2009, Ace Museum was situated a mile from LACMA in an industrial building on La Brea behind a concrete barrier underneath a former parking garage. When I first began reporting this story in 2016, it looked strangely uninhabited. An exhibition featuring a series of ten video tapes of the open road before sunset by London artist Andrew Holmes, playing on monitors arranged in a line on a single long table, had been on view for over two years. At the time, Chrismas, who had already been fired from Ace Gallery by Leslie, could work at the museum, because it was technically a separate entity. He spent some days at a desk a few feet from those monitors. (He also acquired curatorial offices across from LACMA, he said via email.)
The museum described itself, according to its now-defunct website, as “separate and independent,” though “born of the legacy of Ace Gallery.” No mention was made of the moment in 1985 when, during a previous bankruptcy, Chrismas briefly operated a different “Ace Museum” in another cavernous mid-city L.A. warehouse.
The museum’s founding board consisted of collectors who had worked with Chrismas over the years, according to public documents from 2010. Among those listed was Nicholas, the philanthropist and retired lawyer. As Nicholas recalls, Chrismas took him out to dinner once to tell him that he intended to found a museum and asked the collector to sit on the board. Nicholas declined, he said, and only found out he’d been made a board member when the official IRS filings, which named him, became publicly available. He said he never attended a board meeting. Chrismas remembers it differently, he said. “I have no desire to tell [Nicholas] that he was incorrect in his memory,” the dealer wrote in 2022, but “I was regularly in communication with him and with my other trustees.”
Ace Museum operated at a deficit from the start, and generated hardly any revenue, according to public documents from 2010 to 2014. The money for the buildings’ rent came almost exclusively through large transfers from Ace Gallery. Large transfers also soon began going from Ace Gallery to another entity—Ace Gallery NYC, founded just days before Ace filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Ace’s New York location had been closed for nearly a decade; the new entity essentially functioned as a broker with no office or inventory.
In Chrismas’s view, there was nothing suspicious about this arrangement. He’d always intended to re-open a gallery in New York and needed Ace Gallery NYC to preserve his ability to stay in business.
“I was … advised by others that certain collectors would not feel comfortable buying from a gallery that was in a Chapter 11,” Chrismas said in an e-mail in 2016.
Bankruptcy trustee Sam Leslie and his lawyers had a conflicting take, articulated in a 2018 filing: “In fact, the real reason for the formation of Ace NYC was so that Chrismas could ‘sanitize’ or ‘launder’ funds … through a bank account that was not under the oversight of the Bankruptcy Court.”
Throughout 2013, Chrismas allegedly made use of Ace Gallery NYC. For instance, according to court filings, on July 2, he sold three artworks technically belonging to Ace Gallery’s estate for $132,000. The next day, on July 3, he sold three artworks by Helen Pashgian for $51,200. The invoices for each sale said “Ace NYC,” and collectors were instructed to wire their payments to a bank account belonging to Ace Gallery NYC. All of this was possible in part because Chrismas had enlisted Shirley Holst, his longtime accountant, to serve as the bankruptcy estate’s accountant. She worked for Chrismas personally and also for Ace Museum, which would have been considered a conflict of interest—if she ever disclosed this in court. Though Holst died of pancreatic cancer early last year, she was added as a defendant in a civil lawsuit that has run alongside the bankruptcy case since 2015.
By the time Leslie took over in 2016, at least $14.6 million had been diverted to Ace Gallery NYC, while a total of $4 million had been diverted to Ace Museum. It took over two years of forensic accounting to unravel and document all these diverted funds.
Fixing Up a Rotting House
Ace entered a strange new chapter when Sam Leslie took over as acting director.
Leslie wasn’t a complete novice to the art world. He’d been recommended by Wilson, the collector and Ace’s biggest creditor, whose lawyer knew of Leslie and his modest art collection. (Wilson had lent the gallery $1.58 million in late 2013 to help it retain its Wilshire building lease, and so had a vested interest in the gallery surviving.) When Leslie took the reins in April 2016, he intended to bring the gallery into working order with Chrismas’s help. This quickly proved impossible, according to Leslie.
The day before Leslie took over, Chrismas had staff members move 61 artworks from Ace’s galleries to a storage facility, court filings allege. Chrismas claimed the works belonged to him personally. Later, after Leslie fought for access to the storage facility to conduct an inventory, he determined this was not the case — most of the artworks legally belonged to the gallery.
Chrismas also appears to have tried to convince Leslie to participate in a scheme to use Ace Museum to help the gallery out of bankruptcy.
“It was unclear exactly how this would be achieved but based on later discussions it appears that Chrismas was seeking to present to buyers a proposal whereby they would purchase art from Ace at a reduced price and then immediately donate it to Ace Museum and claim a tax deduction for a much higher value,” Leslie reported to the court in May 2016. “As a Certified Public Accountant, I know this proposal to be contrary to tax law.”
Leslie fired Chrismas after the incident and he has been locked in a battle with the dealer ever since.
Without Chrismas, Ace’s inventory became an immediate issue. Since Ace has allegedly kept inconsistent ledgers over the years—according to Leslie’s court filings, records from the first year of the bankruptcy had been deleted when he arrived—this was a daunting task Chrismas had made more difficult by moving artworks to offsite locations.
Once Leslie had accessed both the storage facility and Ace Museum, he encountered a new problem: where to store the overflowing work. He needed additional offsite storage—difficult given how cash-strapped Ace had become. The gallery’s bank accounts had been so low when Leslie took over that he asked Wilson for another $1 million line of credit.
Then, there was the problem of the artists.
In 2013, Chrismas did not tell artists on Ace’s roster that the gallery was filing for bankruptcy. As legal paperwork began arriving at the artists’ homes, many became nervous. In 2015, Chrismas called painter Gary Lang, an Ace artist since 2008, and told him to ignore the documents that would be coming via mail, according to Lang.
“The documents accumulated and overwhelmed me and I sought legal counsel before April’s end,” Lang said via email. “From the beginning of my relationship with the gallery there were signs that accountability was meandering and improvisational.”
Lang’s lawyer filed a document with the court shortly after that saying the whereabouts of work by the artist worth $1.4 million were unclear.
Gradually, other artists followed suit. In January 2016, DeWain Valentine, whose acclaim as a Light and Space progenitor grew significantly after he appeared in a 2012 Getty Museum exhibition held as part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative, filed a claim saying he had not been told of Ace’s bankruptcy, but had since 2014 been trying to secure the return of eight sculptures consigned to Ace, collectively valued at about $1.49 million. Robert Irwin claimed Chrismas sold a rare 1967 acrylic column of his for $2.5 million without his knowledge.
Leslie tried to keep the gallery running as normal. On the June night when he opened his first Ace exhibition, he was upbeat. He wore all black and guided collectors through galleries filled with works by Mary Corse, Dennis Oppenheim, and Julian Schnabel.
“I never want anyone to think we’re closed,” Leslie told me at the time. He acknowledged that part of the reason Wilson wanted Ace to stay open was so that it could be monetized and debts satisfied. But, Leslie added, “He’s also a patron of the arts.” They hoped they could preserve enough of Ace’s legacy that it would remain an iconic L.A. establishment for a little longer.
In December 2016, Leslie hired Drew Hammond, a Berlin-based critic and curator, as exhibitions director. Hammond moved to Los Angeles for the job. He told me he planned to “take from the former program things that I think are still valid and good,” while using “this wonderful space to make something more contemporary.” He also wanted to reform its practices.
“Whatever it was before, it’s now the cleanest gallery in L.A., and so it must be, as it is under supervision of a judge,” he said. He would use a version of this line when trying to attract new artists to the program.
Sreshta Rit Premnath, who exhibited with Ace in 2017, said he knew little about Ace, but recalled that Hammond seemed “incredibly ambitious.” Premnath agreed to exhibit at Ace and put together a show in just a few months, thinking that this could be the beginning of a long-term relationship. The installation went smoothly, and the exhibition opened in August. An elegant show of sculptures, “Falling” was supposed to be the first in a thematic series of shows exploring what Hammond called “Metonymic Narrative,” a trend in which art objects and the artist’s narrative about them operate in tension with one another (“a radical reassertion of authorship,” Hammond called it, since the work can only truly be understood through the artist’s framing). The following show, a solo exhibition by Berlin-based Philipp Lachenmann, continued the series.
But at the end of 2017, the Wilshire lease ended — much to the relief of AERC, who had been trying to evict the gallery since 2013. Ace had to move.
Ace’s Final Resting Place
In January 2018, Ace relocated to a warehouse in Vernon, just south of downtown L.A. For budgetary reasons, the gallery primarily relied on its depleted staff and temporary employees to carry out the move. Hammond remembers it being a hellish undertaking, given the size of the gallery’s inventory.
Wilson provided $75,000 of the $100,000 security deposit for the new space, according to a status report filed after the move. The move lowered the gallery’s monthly rent from over $130,000 to around $11,000. But the fantasy that Ace could continue as a fully-functioning gallery was gone. There was no exhibition space, though Hammond had plans to construct a white-walled project space in the warehouse. He never got the chance. Not long after the relocation, Leslie summoned Hammond to his accounting offices and fired him.
“It was a very strange move,” Hammond said last year. “He didn’t really give me a reason.”
Hammond drove immediately to Vernon to say goodbye to colleagues and collect his belongings. Chrismas called him five minutes after he arrived at the warehouse to offer “condolences,” according to Hammond.
“He said he thought it was the wrong choice,” Hammond recalled.
It was not the first time Chrismas had gotten in touch. During Hammond’s short tenure, the dealer periodically invited him to lunch. Hammond thought Chrismas was trying to glean information about the gallery’s operations, but he went anyway because he wanted to hear about a series of Carl Andre works that had gone missing from Ace’s inventory. The dealer told Hammond that he had returned the works to Paula Cooper, who represents Andre; when Hammond got in touch with Paula Cooper’s staff, they said they did not have the sculptures. (The works consigned to Ace were returned in 2019, according to Paula Cooper’s senior director Steven Henry.)
“That was the end of it for me,” Hammond said of his meetings with Chrismas. “Obfuscation was his greatest talent.”
How Chrismas found out about the firing so quickly is a mystery. Hammond did not think Leslie would have shared the information. Leslie did not respond to a request for comment on the firing. Chrismas simply said that he had known Hammond for years: “So whenever I could, I would reach out to him.”
Shortly after losing his position at Ace, the curator moved back to Berlin. Two days after returning, he suffered the first of two strokes; he said he felt the stress of Ace contributed. After Hammond’s departure, Premnath said he received an email from Leslie saying that the gallery still wished to represent him. But he had lost confidence and requested the return of the artwork the gallery still had in its possession.
“It was a young gallery being imagined within a mismatch of expectation,” Premnath said, noting that Leslie’s Ace was operating like a startup inside the infrastructure of a blue-chip behemoth.
By 2019, Leslie’s optimism appeared to have waned, thanks both to the difficulty of the art business and to Chrismas, who, he alleged, was still obstructing him at every turn. Leslie had tried placing artworks, such as abstract paintings by longtime Ace artist David Amico, in staged homes. But according to court filings, Chrismas would call the homeowners and demand the work be removed. (“I’ve always believed that art should be shown in the most respected way and thus I would not endorse or support art being used for ‘staging’ to help sell real estate,” Chrismas explained via email in 2022.) Chrismas had also asked the court to allow him to package a “transaction” that would bring a better result to creditors.
“This is at best an ironic suggestion,” reads Leslie’s August 2019 status report, “since documents and evidence uncovered to date demonstrate it was Chrismas’ own misconduct that created the necessity for incurring substantially … administrative expenses.”
When the pandemic began the following year, Ace’s operations started looking more and more like a liquidation effort. The May 2021 status report explains that Wilson, the collector who had done so much to keep the gallery afloat, even agreed to allow artworks he had consigned with Ace to be sold at auction. According to that report, Leslie was doing all he could to “reduce expenses, [and] reduce the artwork inventory.”
The lease on the Vernon space ends in August. It is possible Ace Gallery will end there as well, especially if Chrismas ends up in prison.
'Why Stop at Doug Chrismas?'
In 2017, Hammond watched an FBI agent carry away boxes of paperwork out of Ace. He got the sense, he said in 2021, watching those boxes change hands, that the feds had everything they needed to bring a case against Chrismas. Hammond died this April at 65.
This January, in a trial that’s been delayed three times, a jury will decide if Hammond’s intuition was right. Chrismas will be tried for three counts of embezzlement from his own bankruptcy estate – all for checks paid to Ace Gallery NYC, the glorified shell company founded in the wake of Ace’s bankruptcy, just before Leslie assumed control of the gallery. The total – just under $265,000 – pales in comparison to the tens of millions of dollars that court documents allege he diverted from the gallery.
Yet if convicted, Chrismas faces a maximum of 15 years.
Chrismas lost his legal representation for the bankruptcy case in March, when the court granted the request of his previous lawyer, Jonathan Shenson, to withdraw. Shenson cited over $200,000 in unpaid fees and an “irreconcilable breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.” Chrismas has since enlisted the Irvine, CA firm Shulman Bastian Friedman & Bui, while Adam Braun represents him in the federal case. The dealer has had to hand over his passport and make special requests and file public record documents whenever he wishes to travel. Otherwise, he is free to do as he pleases until January.
In June, Chrismas entered into two separate legal settlements with Leslie and Wilson, according to his legal representation, that resolve their claims in the bankruptcy case, including the 14.2 million judgement by the court. The settlements are due to be “fully consummated” this fall.
Over the years, Chrismas has often implied that this prolonged discussion of transactions and legalities distracted from what actually mattered. “I do look forward to maybe one day having an interview with you that discusses the language of art,” he wrote in 2016, and, six years later, he added that he has continued to plan for “amazing curations” even as his legal battles raged.
Constance Mallinson, a former Ace artist, wondered if there was actually room for a sincere discussion of art in such an under-regulated, exploitative market.
“Art is to the art market what nature is to strip mining,” she told me. “I think the system itself needs a much more rigorous looking into. Why stop at Doug Chrismas? There are other dealers.”