In 1994, Los Angeles artist James Hayward dreamed he was murdering an art collector. At the time, he was broke and desperate to make a sale.
The dream went like this: Hayward went to meet his dealer, the famous Douglas Chrismas, in the sumptuous house of a collector. When he arrived, he was surprised to see the collector that already belonged to him, a heavy lead envelope that he didn’t remember making or selling. “You’ve been warned, and often,” the dream version of Hayward’s wife, Sue, told him. Hayward became furious. He pulled a medieval ax from the fireplace mantle and hacked into the Collector and his two bodyguards. The dream ended with Noel standing stunned in pools of blood. Shortly after Hayward woke up – according to a short story he posted in 2010 – Noel called and the artist recounted the dream. Unfazed, the fictional Christmas told him to write it down: “I bet I can sell it for you.”
“It’s a dream. You can’t be held responsible for a dream,” Hayward said when I first interviewed him about Christmas in 2016. “That Doug is alive is the only proof that we need the art world to be a civilized place.
Douglas Chrismas, the founder of the famous Ace Gallery in Los Angeles and an early promoter of talent like Richard Serra, Michael Heizer and Ed Ruscha, often inspired rage among associates. He moved to Los Angeles in 1966 and opened his first gallery in the city soon after.
The allegations have followed him at least since the early 1970s. He has been accused of fabricating artists’ works, failing to return unsold works of art, withholding payments, and financial mismanagement. Several years before Hayward had his dream of revenge, sculptor Donald Judd published an ad in art forum accusing Ace of holding an exhibition “wrongly attributed” to the artist. A decade earlier, Andy Warhol had complained about missing Christmas payments.
But none of the charges ever seemed to stick. Despite Noël’s reputation, its roster is teeming with artists sought after for decades, and its galleries have grown larger and more ornate.
Even after years of bankruptcies, Christmas seemed untouchable. That’s until last July, when the dealership was charged with three federal counts of embezzlement. The next day he was released on $50,000 bail, attending the Felix Art Fair at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. In May, a federal court ordered Chrismas to pay $14.2 million in a bankruptcy case that has dragged on since 2013. With a federal trial scheduled for January, after three delays, that could put the dealer in jail if he is found guilty, Chrismas might finally be out of luck.
But the question of how Christmas persisted for so long, and how decades of allegations of non-payment and missing artwork ultimately escalated into current accusations of money laundering and embezzlement, testifies to the opacity of the art market and the millions of dollars lying around in it. For artists and art-world observers, the Case of Christmas offers a remarkably comprehensive look behind a curtain that is rarely drawn this far.