I Worked For A Company Selling Fake Paintings To Old People
Faking a painting for money seems like the kind of crime that only exists in glitzy heist movies in which the thieves all wear tuxedos. But we talked to somebody who was involved in a much more widespread, and also much stupider, version of this scam. Here is her ridiculous tale.
I Am A Trained Artist ... Not That It Mattered
About ten years ago, I was fresh out of graphic design school, and like every other graduate at the time and every artist all the time, I was having trouble finding a job. But then I found an ad in the paper calling for Christmas help at a studio called Everly Originals, in the art department. Everly Originals, as I learned from a spot on the Home Shopping Network, took photos you mailed them and had artists paint them with oils on canvas.
That's cool, right? Having a real painting of a loved one without forcing them to pose for like 20 hours? Everly Originals is now out of business (their old web designer archived their site here). But at the time, it seemed like a hell of an opportunity. Not too many people who study art get to end up doing real painting.
My diploma from a year-long intensive study course landed me the job easily, and I was told I'd be working in the artists' section. "So how do I set my work space up?" I asked a co-worker on my first day. Let's call her and all my other co-workers "Anna." I continued, "I guess the easel goes in the corner there. Can you show me some sample photos and finished portraits so I see the sort of thing I should be shooting for?"
"Oh, we don't actually make portraits," she said. "We have the graphic design department for that."
"Graphic design?" That was my field. "So, they ...?"
"They scan the photo and run it through Photoshop. They put an oil painting filter on it."
"OK," I said. "So what do I do?"
Basically, I Was Creating Fake Brush Strokes To Fool Customers
"Your job," said Anna, "is to apply the glace. That makes it really look like it's been painted." The process, according to this art blog responding to queries about Everly Originals, produces something called a giclee print. I was given a bucket of clear gel stuff -- acrylic, said one former employee. I'd apply it to the print with a paintbrush. This would create brush strokes of a sort, though I didn't follow the strokes that Photoshop created; I just scribbled over the whole thing.
The idea was the customer would feel some kind of texture when they ran their fingers over the finished product, but if you knew anything about painting, it would look like a ridiculous fake. The only paint used on the paintings were some dots in the eyes. Presumably, if anyone ever took the company to task for false advertising, they could claim those oil irises meant the products were technically paintings.
Still, on the Home Shopping Network, Mr. William Everly would use real paint to do portraits on-camera, so you'd think that's how they were created. That's certainly what customers thought when they ordered them. Keep in mind, these "paintings" cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the add-ons. Extra people in the photo (even though that was no harder for us), a larger size, etc. all cost more.
Meanwhile the website had to carefully explain that this professional portrait artist could not add or change any details from the original photo.
"This is how we've always done it," said Anna, "as far as I can remember." It seemed that every single employee knew it was a scam, and most of them didn't care. It was a paycheck in a down economy. The owners never said anything about it being a scam, it wasn't openly talked about a lot, and they were rarely in the office anyway (including Mr. Everly, the one supposedly painting all the portraits).
It Turns Out You Can Fool A LOT Of People This Way (But Not Everyone)
For the Christmas rush, there were so many paintings ordered and going out that we used an oven to dry them, then left them overnight on a rack. The oven smelled horrid, and we tried using those doctor-type masks that cover your nose and mouth. They didn't do much (those block germs, not chemical fumes). Anna even called OSHA, which might explain what ended up happening to the company later.
After Christmas, they moved me to customer service. Once buyers had their paintings and were super upset that it wasn't what was advertised, they called me. I felt bad for them, I really did, but my script gave me no solutions to offer them, no apologies. You don't like what we gave you? Just send it back. Most people would assume that meant we were going to fix the painting or redo it (for the cost, that's what you'd expect), but really, all we would do was refund the money and tell them that "Mr. Everly" did his best, and it was their fault for poor pictures.
Lots of people asked to speak directly to Mr. Everly, but we were told to say that he was in his studio and not available. Many customers calling threatened to report us to the Better Business Bureau. That made my boss laugh. "That won't do anything," she said. "Tell them it's fine if they want to that."
Another lady called me repeatedly and screamed until I ended up in tears. My boss happened to walk in on me during this call.
"Hang up," my boss said.
"Hang up," she repeated. "No one should be allowed to mistreat you like that."
Which made me like my boss a little more, and I did hang up for my own sanity, but later on I wound up on the phone with the same caller again.
"Is anyone else ever going to answer the phone?" she asked helplessly.
"No," I said, still in tears (the only other customer service rep was at lunch). She asked for my supervisor, and I did forward the call, but of course nothing came of that. I started smoking again (I'd recently quit) just so I could leave the area for breaks.
And, Of Course, It All Came Crashing Down
One day, I was out sick. Around lunchtime, Anna phoned me. The employees had all gotten called into the conference room a little before lunch and were told the company was now closed, don't answer any more calls, and basically don't come back. The company didn't contact me about this personally, and it fell to Anna to collect my personal effects from my desk and deliver them to me.
This was in 2009, when Obama took office, and the company's big publicity stunt had been a huge painting to commemorate the occasion ...
I believe they even displayed it in DC. Then they sold prints (they called them prints, not paintings -- it wouldn't make sense to claim he was repainting the same picture over and over), complete with a certificate of authenticity. I have one. I didn't pay for it, but when they closed, I took one with me. I felt like maybe in 10/20/50 years, it would be worth something to someone.
After it ended, I found tons of complaints online saying people thought the company had to have been some Chinese sweatshop assembly line. I had a good laugh. It was basically that, but in a small town in northern New Jersey, and we were simply smearing acrylic on a print. HSN even sued the company (there were thousands of unfilled orders when the company went under), though it's unclear what come of that. Everly Originals had declared bankruptcy the previous month. Mr. Everly himself slipped away into relative obscurity. You can still find a couple pages online listing his ten-year-old photo paintings for five figures each.
Oh, And Many People Never Got Their Original Photos Back
It was a couple months later that I got a call on my cellphone from an old lady who was searching for anyone from Everly Originals she could talk to. She must have been at least five pages deep into a Google search for Everly Originals, because she got my number off my resume on my website. "I'm really just looking to get my photos back," she said. "I can't get in touch with anyone anywhere!"
See, everyone was guaranteed that they'd get their photos back along with the painting. They were encouraged to send their original, physical photos for us to work from. I thought back to the place's shipping department, which had always been full of people's original pictures just sitting there. There always seemed to be more photos there than there could possibly be orders still under process. "I'm sorry, I can't help you," I said. "I don't have access to the building. Even if I did, it could all have been cleaned out, for all I know." I later learned the building is now an animal hospital. "Can you print out some new copies?"
"Print out? No no, these are actual photos, not computer pictures. I sent them to you, and I want them back!"
"Can you get new photos from the negatives?"
"I don't have any negatives! I gave you my wedding portrait, and it was the only copy, and I trusted you with it!"
I've never received another call from anyone. I wonder what happened to all of those photos -- many being that person's only copy, or maybe their only photo of the event, period. The news story I linked earlier says HSN was going to try to sort through them and send them back. Who knows how many they got around to. Did the rest get thrown in the garbage? Are they still piled up somewhere? Maybe someday, many years from now, someone will find them and they will be historically relevant. If not for contents of the photos, then the context of why they were left there. It will explain so much about the era.
Painting is still a joy -- get yourself an oil paints kit and embrace your inner Bob.
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