Many adjectives could describe the abstract expressionist paintings of Marco Selvaggia.
Bold. Vibrant. Energetic. Dramatic. Expensive.
And maybe bogus.
The website belonging to the "fourth-generation artist of Italian heritage" says "Selvaggia" began painting in seclusion in the mid-1990s and first unveiled his works (priced from $35,000 to $1 million) for private collectors in January 2004.
But a 47-year-old local airbrush artist of English and Swedish descent says he's the actual creator of 200-plus colorful palette-knife paintings dashed off in a hangar at the Aurora Airport over a six-month period.
Earlier this month, Joel Benson filed a breach-of-contract and fraud suit seeking up to $10 million from Mark Ghiglieri, whom he says masterminded the scheme to sell the giant canvases to unsuspecting upper-crusters.
Ghiglieri's name has come up before in potentially squirrelly art dealings. Five years ago, WW detailed how the now-39-year-old son of world-famous sculptor Lorenzo Ghiglieri had capitalized on his family name by "donating" questionably appraised bronze statues to charity auctions in exchange for a hefty cut of the proceeds (see "In the Name of the Father," WW, Jan. 24, 2001).
Ghiglieri declined to comment about the recent lawsuit, saying the 2001 WW article "ruined my life and ruined my family's life."
Benson told WW that he and Ghiglieri came together in the 1980s over a shared passion for fixing up fast, expensive cars. Even then, Benson says Ghiglieri expressed interest in dealing Benson's art.
Things finally clicked in August 2003, when Ghiglieri began wining and dining Benson, even flying him to Las Vegas in what he represented as his private jet, the lawsuit says.
The two entered into what seemed a simple business deal: Benson would create modern canvases up to 5 by 8 feet, and Ghiglieri would use his connections with the moneyed elite to market them.
The contracts between them gave Benson up to a 25 percent cut of the sales and stipulate Benson's paintings would be painted "under the design of Mark Ghiglieri AKA Marco Selvaggia" and signed as "Selvaggia." Ghiglieri's attorney said he had not seen the suit and declined comment.
Before starting the venture in December 2003, Benson had primarily worked as an illustrator, painting cityscapes, sunsets and sports cars. But working 10 to 12 hours a day on the abstracts, Benson says he tapped into newfound artistic wells.
"I was doing a lot of experimenting, trying to find myself in those things," he says.
Then in June 2004, Ghiglieri ordered a halt to the painting without an explanation, Benson says. Still, the artist says Ghiglieri maintained he could sell the pieces Benson had already produced for $25,000 to $100,000 each.
But months passed and Benson's phone calls went unreturned. More importantly, no checks came.
Ghiglieri did eventually provide Benson with an inventory of 218 paintings—valued by Ghiglieri at more than $10 million. Benson's suit seeks at least the $2.5 million he might have made under the contract if all those paintings sold.
Trying to learn what became of his works, Benson also discovered the Selvaggia website, where he found a biography that clearly wasn't his. (The site was taken down after WW talked to Ghiglieri last week.) Several other "Selvaggia" paintings still appear to be for sale on another online art brokerage.
The lawsuit says Benson agreed to use the pseudonym, but never a made-up background. He told WW he reluctantly agreed to do so—but not to the Selvaggia bio—because Ghiglieri thought Benson's own name was too plain-Jane.
Still, Benson remains fairly upbeat.
"I was an artist before I met him,'' he says of Ghiglieri. "And I'll be an artist long after him."