Next week, Portland's charity auction season kicks off in earnest. From now until Thanksgiving, the city's elite will gather nearly every weekend at black-tie galas at the Governor Hotel, the Multnomah Athletic Club and wherever supporters of charitable causes can be corralled.
Auctions are the lifeblood of many Portland nonprofits. Last year, for example, Metropolitan Family Services raised more than $1.1 million at its auction. At Jesuit High's 32nd annual auction last May, the school raised $848,000. One Jesuit staffer works full time year-round to organize the event. "It's the biggest way that nonprofits raise money in Portland," says Drina Simons of the Christie School, a residential youth home, which expects to raise $200,000 at its March 10 function.
The success of auctions is no accident. Sponsors offer first-class food and wine and the opportunity to support a worthy cause, perhaps take home a bargain and deduct a good chunk of the evening's expense.
While charity auctions have been around for decades, WWhas discovered a remarkable new wrinkle. In the upcoming auction season, the biggest donor to local events will not be such perennial givers such as Azumano Travel, the Blazers or Nike. Instead, charity's unlikely sugar daddy is a Portland company founded by a convicted felon who devised a scheme that has raised millions of dollars--and more than a few questions.
Mark Angelo Ghiglieri loves fast cars--he claims he once got his Lamborghini Diablo up to 207 miles per hour on the way to Salem. But while his cigarette-lighter-sized cell phone and leather jacket look slick, Ghiglieri is as low-key as someone whose dream car is a Ford Escort.
Friends say he is a masterful salesman, and from the custom-designed Rolex on Ghiglieri's left wrist (32 carats of diamonds, he says) to the Mercedes 600 SL he parks at his new riverfront home in Gladstone, the babyfaced 34-year-old radiates success.
Ghiglieri's life wasn't always diamonds and sports cars. In his 20s, the Lake Oswego High graduate racked up a criminal record that reads like a parent's nightmare. In 1987, while serving in the Army, a military court convicted him of counterfeiting. He was court-martialed and sentenced to nine months in Leavenworth.
Five years later, he was convicted of detonating a pipe bomb underneath a Lake Oswego railroad bridge. Federal agents found seven more such devices in his mobile home. Despite the efforts of Norman Sepenuk, one of Portland's top criminal-defense lawyers, Ghiglieri spent 10 months in the federal penitentiary in Sheridan.
The soft-spoken Ghiglieri maintains that the counterfeiting rap was an overreaction: He merely photocopied a hundred $20 bills and stuck them on his barracks wall. "The Army takes that kind of thing seriously," he says.
As for the pipe bomb, Ghiglieri says he and some friends were celebrating New Year's Eve by lighting half-sticks of dynamite and tossing them into the Willamette. In a bit of bad luck, one of the dynamite sticks severed a TCI television cable attached to the railroad bridge, cutting off service to 25,000 people. "He's not violent," a friend explains. "He just likes to hear loud noises."
In 1998, Ghiglieri ceased his boneheaded maneuvers, transforming himself overnight into a successful entrepreneur. "I wanted to start my life over," he says.
His "Eureka!" moment came one August night at a Portland charity auction at the downtown Marriott. Ghiglieri watched as a sculpture of two eagles attacking a salmon sold for $63,000. What captured his attention was the fervor of the would-be buyers. "I was just blown away by how many people were bidding, even when the price got above 30 grand," he recalls.
The following Monday, Ghiglieri hustled down to the Lake Oswego library. What he found there would soon put a the jet-black Ferrari F-355 in his garage. "There are 1.9 million nonprofits in this country," he says. "And every year about 20 percent of them hold auctions."
All Ghiglieri needed now was a supply of art--preferably high-value objects with broad appeal. For once in his star-crossed life, Ghiglieri was in luck.
Unlike paintings or other forms of art, bronze sculpture is easy to reproduce, easy to understand and, best of all for Ghiglieri, readily available. In the world of bronze, there are few bigger names than that of his own father, Lorenzo Ghiglieri.
An outsized man (6-feet-6-inches and over 300 pounds) with outsized talent, Lorenzo Ghiglieri, 69, has carved out a reputation as one of the Northwest's best-recognized and most prolific bronze sculptors. He is famed for eagles (a 27-foot-high specimen graces the entrance to the Seven Feathers Casino near Medford; another is in the White House's permanent collection), horses and other western scenes.
His work can be seen publicly in Portland in front of NW Natural's Old Town headquarters, and, according to promotional materials, all over the world. His sculptures have been presented to, among many others, Mikhail Gorbachev, Queen Elizabeth and Spain's King Juan Carlos.
So, when Mark Ghiglieri established a company called Provenance Fine Arts Corp. on Upper Boones Ferry Road in the fall of 1998, he knew a thing or two about bronze.
Ghiglieri hired a couple of telemarketers and gave them each a list of nonprofits. The pitch he devised was simple. Provenance employees called auction organizers offering to "donate" a Ghiglieri sculpture for an upcoming event. In return, the nonprofit agreed to split 50-50 the proceeds of any sale made above a preset price. The company provided promotional materials and paid shipping expenses.
In addition, Provenance provided a bound appraisal from the National Institute of Appraisers certifying the value of each sculpture. "I thought that was more impressive than just putting a price on them," Ghiglieri explains.
For cash-starved nonprofits, Provenance proved a godsend. Most auction organizers spend months frantically begging for donations, says Shannon Worley, who runs Portland's Boys and Girls Club auction. Provenance's offer of unsolicited big-ticket items made organizers' jobs much easier. "It's really nice to have donors call," Worley says. "I love those that come to me."
Not surprisingly, Ghiglieri's new company took off faster than one of his sports cars. "Nobody in the world is moving more high-end bronze than Provenance," he says.
In November, according to figures provided by the company, Provenance "donated" more than 300 pieces of sculpture to nonprofits across the country. For the entire year, Provenance generated revenues of nearly $5 million--half of which went to nonprofits.
Mark Ghiglieri's story might simply be a tale of altruism and personal redemption--except that Provenance's donations tarnish upon closer inspection.
For starters, some organizations are uncomfortable with the idea that Provenance is profiting by riding charities' coattails. "In the 12 years I've been volunteering at Doernbecher, it's the first time I've ever seen a split of the proceeds--it's very unusual," says Ron Brake, president of the children's hospital foundation, which nonetheless auctions Provenance sculptures. "Frankly, I find it a little bit distasteful, because it seems a way for Provenance to market their art."
Other groups simply refuse the company's terms, because they believe auction items should be donated with no strings or costs attached. "We don't take sculptures from Provenance," says Joanie Hanson, who organizes Jesuit's auction.
Some nonprofits that accept Ghiglieri sculptures, such as the Christie School, inform auction attendees of Provenance's revenue-sharing arrangement. But many do not. At last year's Portland Boys and Girls Club auction, for instance, there was no mention in the auction catalogue that Provenance would receive half the proceeds from sculpture it provided.
Worley, who organized the event, says there was no intention to mislead the audience. "It's not a secret," she says of Provenance's 50-50 split. "But you can't put everything in the auction catalogue or it would be 300 pages long."
There are, however, bigger concerns about the way Provenance conducts its business.
First, there is the issue of how the company uses the Ghiglieri name. In all its marketing material, Provenance features Lorenzo--his face, his biography, his art--and his collectors. It is, after all, Lorenzo whose work is in the White House, the Vatican and the Smithsonian. And descriptions of Lorenzo's life and work fill up eight of the 10 pages on the Provenance website (finearttrust.com) that former employees say is a crucial part of the company's pitch to nonprofits.
It is also Lorenzo who dominates the glossy six-page color brochures the company produces; it is Lorenzo shown presenting sculptures to the pope and Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson in the massive photographs that cover Provenance's showroom walls, adorn the promotional poster boards and feature in the videos that the company sends to auctions.
In short, the Ghiglieri fame and the Ghiglieri name are Lorenzo's.
Yet WW has learned that the majority of sculptures that Provenance sends to auctions are produced not by Lorenzo but by his 30-year-old son Laran Ghiglieri. Laran, who lives in Lake Oswego, acknowledges that while his father sculpted a couple of the pieces Provenance sells, he creates most of the company's product. "I think 70 or 75 percent of Provenance's work is mine," he says.
A little-known sculptor who admits his work has never been sold in galleries, Laran says his real passion is producing art for fantasy comic books.
While his father's sculptures can be found in spots ranging from Forest Grove's Montinore Vineyards to the Japanese headquarters of Toyo tires, Laran's work is displayed publicly in only one setting: His bronze rendition of two dolphins stands in front of a Portland strip joint called The Dolphin on Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard.
If charity auction buyers fall in love with Lorenzo's reputation and go home with Laran's sculpture, they have themselves to blame. But Provenance does far more than market Lorenzo's name aggressively. For several reasons, the "certified appraisals" the company provides are puzzling.
For one thing, the very notion of appraising contemporary bronze sculptures is unusual. "I have never heard of an appraiser of bronzes unless you're talking about antique pieces," says Jeanie Joslin, the wife and business manager of Lake Oswego sculptor Jerry Joslin. "It's uncommon to see an appraisal with a contemporary bronze," agrees Tom O'Grady of Portland's O'Gallerie.
According to a Provenance official, all of the company's appraisals come from the same place--the National Institute of Appraisers in Los Angeles.
Mark and Laran Ghiglieri insist that the NIA provides an unbiased evaluation of Provenance's artwork. "The appraisals are done independently," Laran says.
Edward Okil, the executive director of the NIA, told a different story. Okil conceded that he has no data from galleries or independent auctions that would substantiate NIA's appraisals of Laran's work. And contrary to the claim of independence, Okil told WW that much of his information came from Provenance rather than third parties, though he says this is not unusual. "We do appraisals all the time based on things we are given by clients," Okil explains.
Neither the Institute nor Okil is a member of either the American Society of Appraisers or the Appraisers Association of America, the two leading art-appraisal groups. Okil says he does belong to professional associations but declined to say which ones.
An appraiser's credentials are particularly important because the art industry is so lightly regulated, says Paula Madden, a Sotheby's-trained Portland appraiser who has worked with galleries, collectors and insurance companies for 20 years and is a member of the ASA. "In order to testify in court as an expert, I must have a professional association behind me," she explains.
Madden says that a couple of years ago she was hired by an insurance company to appraise the value of some stolen paintings that had previously been appraised by the NIA, Okil's company. "The value given in their appraisal was misleading and totally unsubstantiated," Madden says.
Of course, the most important test of an appraisal is whether it is accurate. WW obtained an NIA appraisal of a Laran Ghiglieri sculpture called Nature's Treasures, which values the sculpture at $37,500. WW faxed it to Tom Barnes of Richard Thomas Galleries in San Francisco, one of the West Coast's foremost dealers of bronze art.
Barnes says the document bears no resemblance to any art appraisal he has seen before. Although nine pages long, the appraisal offers no specific information about the sculpture other than its dimensions. "It seems like there's an attempt on their part to create a value based on the appraiser rather than the artwork," he says.
Barnes, who has known Lorenzo Ghiglieri for two decades, says that $37,500 would be a lot of money for one of his sculptures the size of Nature's Treasure, much less one by his little-known son. Given the younger Ghiglieri's obscurity, Barnes finds the value NIA placed on the sculpture mystifying. "I can tell you that as a routine matter, [even] Lorenzo's work doesn't sell for anything like that for a piece that size," Barnes says.
For their part, Mark and Laran deny that Provenance's appraisals are inflated. Mark insists that some of Laran's golf sculptures have sold at or above appraised value at charity auctions. "When thousands of the most successful people in the world own Laran's artwork," Mark says, "he's a known commodity."
Mark Ghiglieri no longer runs Provenance Fine Arts. Last year, he sold the company to Roger Pollock, once Portland's most prolific home builder.
Ghiglieri met Pollock in the spring of 1999, when a friend took him to Pollock's home in Lake Oswego. At 12,600 square feet, Pollock's Willamette River-front palazzo, with its nine bathrooms and space station-size chandelier, screamed the word "prospect" to Ghiglieri, who was seeking money to expand Provenance. "I pitched him pretty good," Ghiglieri recalls.
Pollock, then 38, had recently netted more than $7 million in the sale of his construction company. Temporarily retired, he kept busy riding jet skis and serving as finance chairman for Molly Bordonaro's failed 1998 congressional campaign. All the while, Pollock, whom Inc. magazine dubbed in 1999 one of the nation's leading entrepreneurs under the age of 40, was looking for his next big score.
Pollock was enthralled with Provenance's potential. "Mark had more customers than money," he recalls.
The meeting went well. "I was only there for about 10 minutes," Ghiglieri says. "But he gave me a big check to invest in the company."
Within a month Pollock upped his investment, becoming Ghiglieri's partner. He quickly wrung inefficiencies out of the company. "We were paying $275 apiece for our reader boards when I got here," Pollock says of Provenance's promotional posters. "Now I get them for six bucks."
Aggressiveness is Pollock's hallmark. In 1999, for example, he sued D.R. Horton, the company that bought him out, claiming that Horton failed to support its Portland operations, which he briefly directed. The suit backfired. In court, Horton proved that Pollock had improperly used company funds to pay for work previously done on his homes in Lake Oswego and at the coast. Pollock agreed to repay the company and was also ordered to pay $194,000 in costs and legal fees. (He is currently appealing the decision.)
But the former homebuilder's aggressiveness also drove Provenance's growth. In April 1999, the company employed 12 people; today it has nearly 50, most of them telemarketers sitting in a windowless room under handwritten signs that say "Charities Are Your Boss." And although Pollock claims the company lost money last year, he was bullish enough on its prospects to pay Ghiglieri what both men say was $1 million to leave the company. "Mark and I just have different styles," he says.
But by late last year, Pollock's hardball approach had contributed to enough grumbling from suppliers and people in the bronze art community that a number of them brought their concerns about Provenance's marketing practices and appraisals to WW's attention.
Pollock denies that his company attempts to deceive auction patrons and says the appraisals Provenance provides are legitimate. "To take any kind of shortcut is misleading and not worth it," he adds.
In a rambling interview, Lorenzo Ghiglieri said he knew nothing about the details of Provenance's operation or of the method in which it gets appraisals. "They're contributing a lot of money to charity, and that's what really counts," he said.
Nevertheless, Attorney General Hardy Myers' staff is interested in Provenance. Given the discrepancy between appraised values and sales prices, the company may be in violation of Oregon's Truth in Advertising laws. Contacted last week, an official in the AG's office told WW that investigators will soon begin examination of Provenance's activities. "We will be looking at Provenance for possible unlawful trade practices," says Jan Margosian, the AG's consumer-affairs specialist.
While Pollock plots Provenance's future, his former partner is applying his skills to a new company he formed. Instead of sculpture, he's marketing an anti-aging elixir called Viogenix. "What I've created is going to be bigger than Provenance," Mark Ghiglieri says. "Way bigger."
A Provenance official says the company's sculptures have been auctioned in all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Canada.
Organizations that have auctioned Provenance sculptures locally include the American Cancer Society, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Boys and Girls Club, Central Catholic, Lincoln High School, Stevenson Elementary and Molalla's Country Christian School.
Provenance recently offered a Portland nonprofit a sculpture called
, appraised at $18,700 with a reserve price of $2,400. Given that Provenance splits revenues, that means it would sell the sculpture for $1,200, about 1/16th of the appraised price.
Portlanders including former Louisiana Pacific CEO Harry Merlo, Black and Company Founder Larry Black and industrialist Peter Brix have reportedly collected Lorenzo Ghiglieri's sculpture.
Provenance has also sold sculptures by Mark Ghiglieri's sister Rebecca, a former
appraised at $26,000, appeared at the Boys and Girls Club auction last year. The same sculpture was available last week on eBay.com for $2,285 but did not sell.
Bronze sculptors first produce wax molds, then build more substantial rubber, plaster and ceramic molds around them; these can be used to produce editions of up to several hundred of the original design.
Pollock's home is currently for sale. He's asking $7.5 million and says he has received a $5 million bid from Portland Trail Blazer Shawn Kemp.
In addition to his home, Pollock has put a number of properties he owns on the market. He recently sold a building at 5909 SW Corbett Ave. for $460,000. Former congressional candidate Molly Bordonaro represented him in the transaction.