OCTOBER 22 (UPI) – A Michigan art dealer was arrested earlier this month for defrauding senior citizens out of more than $1.6 million at his gallery in suburban Detroit.
Wendy Halstead Bird, owner and operator of the Wendy Halstead Gallery, was arrested by the FBI on October 14 and charged with wire fraud and mail fraud.
Investigators said Baird took and sold fine art photographs, embezzling money in the process. He is accused of selling art to a victim but never shipping it after receiving payment.
Court documents obtained by UPI show Byrd posted $10,000 bail on the day of his arrest. It was not immediately clear if he had been released.
The FBI alleges in court documents that Baird, who inherited the gallery from his father, has been running a fraud victim scheme since 2017. His father, Thomas Halstead, died in 2018.
The investigation into Baird began after the Birmingham Police Department received several complaints that the art dealer had failed to return the photos by the deadline. Birmingham Police referred the complaint to the FBI.
"In an investigation that may identify dozens of victims, this statement highlights some of the victim's interactions with Byrd," the FBI agent wrote in court documents.
Among the artworks sold by Beard is a photograph by Ansel Adams entitled The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, 1942.
These were approximately $1 million worth of artistic photographs that were sent to the 82-year-old victim, identified in court documents as victim #1.
The photo reportedly sold for $440,000, having previously been valued at $625,000 in 2016.
The victim produced a letter to the FBI in which Byrd said he took the prints to sell in Jackson, Wyoming, to no avail.
When the delivery deadline expired, Baird signed a contract with the Jackson Gallery to sell prints purchased by the gallery on behalf of a private collector, according to the FBI.
Bank records show a $440,000 transfer for purchases made in June 2020.
The print changed hands several more times before being purchased by a private client for $685,000 for display at the Idaho headquarters.
"According to Victim 1, Byrd was never notified of the sale of the Ansel Adams photograph and subsequently never received the proceeds from the sale," the court documents said.
"Victim #1 tried multiple times to get his photo back from Bard, who explained to victim #1 why he couldn't get the artwork back. Many times the excuses have been linked to Byrd's allegedly poor lung health."
Court documents show Byrd used a pseudonymous email account believed to be a gallery assistant when he claimed he received a lung transplant to keep the artwork from being returned to its owner.
"Several victims reported receiving messages from this email account stating that Byrd was hospitalized or in a coma and could not contact them directly," the FBI agents wrote in court documents.
"Based on my experience and training, I believe Baird created this and other fake members and email addresses to encourage the scam and gain sympathy for his victims and justify why he did not return their art ."
In court documents, the FBI said there was no evidence Baird ever received an organ donation.
Byrd is also accused of stealing a photo of Ansel Adams taken in the truck of an 89-year-old man with Alzheimer's, prosecutors said.
This victim, identified as "Victim 2", also provided Bard with images of other notable artists such as Ion Zupko, Arnold Newman and Jerry Welsman.
When the victim demanded the photos be returned, Byrd left them at a local frame shop for clearance. When the victim's family received the photos from the originators, they noticed that the photo, titled "Tenaya Creek," signed by Ansel Adams, was unsigned.
"In addition, there is a photograph purportedly signed by Ansel Adams entitled Portfolio at Lake Siesta, which is actually a completely different photograph by Ansel Adams entitled Moon and Half Dome," the court documents said.
Byrd was questioned by Birmingham Police Department detectives at his home in May and he agreed to return two photographs of Ansel Adams to victim 2.
"Byrd entered another room of Byrd's apartment, collected and framed three photos and claimed they were photos of missing victim 2," the court documents said.
"Detectives took photos, decided they were still inaccurate, and left them unphotographed."
In June, Byrd left two photos with the Birmingham Police Department, which were sent to the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, California, for identification. The gallery says the two photo prints provided are reproductions and can be purchased at the gift shop for $375.
The FBI obtained PayPal records showing that Bard purchased a photograph titled "Tenaya Creek Dogwood Rain – Unframed/Uncoloured" from the Ansel Adams Gallery for $405.26.
The FBI added that FBI agents were interviewing several other victims as part of the investigation.
"During this investigation, it was determined that more than 100 rare fine art photographs valued at approximately $1.6 million were sent to Byrd and were neither returned nor extradited to the victims," court documents said.
"Bank and other business records indicate there may be other victims who have not been interviewed."
Potential victims or anyone with additional information regarding this suspect's possible fraud are asked to contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or to file a report online.