As Seattle Times Arts and Entertainment Editor Jan Even tells it, the paper was duped by a hoaxer posing as a savvy art dealer.
But critics say the newspaper set itself up when it ran a color feature on the front page of its arts section reporting that a $20 million masterpiece by 15th-century Italian painter Raphael may have been found in Seattle – without checking the facts.
Deloris Tarzan Ament, art critic for the Times, reported on May 27 that Kenneth Fetterman, a 25-year-old fine-art investment broker, was hired by the painting's unnamed owners to authenticate a well-known work widely attributed to Raphael. He told Ament that he had been asked to authenticate "about 50" possible Raphael paintings, but "Madonna del Passeggio" was the first he believed to be the real thing. If true, Fetterman's find would be big news to the art world, and a big story for Ament, since there are only a handful of copies of the painting scattered throughout the world. None has been conclusively attributed to Raphael.
Ament reported that Fetterman had learned how to authenticate art at the age of 16 from a Philadelphia art broker; he was considered a prodigy by age 17. Fetterman said he had briefly attended veterinary school, but dropped out to work full-time as an art dealer. After earning "well in the seven digits," the article said, Fetterman moved to the Northwest and was working on a book about Raphael.
Two sidebars ran with the story: one about art forgery and the difficulties in authenticating old masterpieces, the other reporting that three Raphaels, including Fetterman's, had recently been authenticated.
Regina Hackett, art critic for the rival Seattle Post-Intelligencer, took a look at the article and saw what she called "one source journalism, and a very suspect source at that." Hackett made a few phone calls and Fetterman's and Ament's story quickly unraveled.
Fetterman, she reported the next day, was not a disinterested authenticator, but the owner of the painting, which he had purchased at a local gallery for less than $5,000. Neither Sotheby's nor Christie's, the two major auction houses in New York, had heard of the painting, and neither had knowledge of the "probable $20 million" asking price. Fetterman had the painting's history of ownership – detailed in the Times' story – confused with a copy in Edinburgh, Scotland.
"When I first saw [Ament's story], I got that sympathetic jolt, that 'it- could-be-me' feeling," says Hackett. "I wouldn't say it was completely the reporter's fault, though. Where were her editors?"
Times Vice President and Executive Editor Michael Fancher admits the paper made a mistake in running the story without asking more questions about Fetterman's background. He pointed to follow-up stories the Times ran to rectify the situation.
The day after the original story – the same day as Hackett's story – the Times ran a story by Ament headed, "Is painting a Raphael or a hoax?" and reported "findings" similar to Hackett's.
Three weeks later, the Times' news department ran a front-page investigative piece detailing Fetterman's real past: His art background consisted of a 10-week art class in high school (his teacher said he drew well). After graduating, he joined the Army but was given a bad conduct discharge after being convicted of possessing LSD; he spent one year in military prison. Upon his arrival in Seattle, Fetterman lived in a squalid boardinghouse and got jobs delivering pizza and coaching volleyball.
"The guy was stinko," Steve Morris, co-owner of Seattle's Pacific Gallery, which sold the painting to Fetterman, told WJR. "He was not a believable person."
So how did Ament get suckered? "I never said one way or another that this was a Raphael. I didn't say it was, I didn't say it wasn't," Ament responds. "We don't know that it isn't a Raphael."
Ament does concede that "almost everything [Fetterman] said was a lie," but that on her beat, this kind of thing "just doesn't normally happen." She says she did make an attempt to track down his mentor in Philadelphia, without success.
Fetterman could not be reached for comment. Despite the brouhaha, Ament says, "He earnestly believes it is a Raphael," and is still trying to sell it.
Fancher concedes the story was "an embarrassment to the newspaper," but said it also served as "a wake-up call" to the paper's reporters to be more diligent.