$25.5 MILLION fraud judgment against Meta 1!!
Despite Texas man amassing collection of treasures, he’s broke
Ex-rock band guitarist’s effort to dig self out leads to more financial woes
- Houston Chronicle Sunday
- 28 Jul 2019
- By Patrick Danner STAFF WRITER
Charles Trois stands in front of a wax-figure depiction of the Last Supper. “You know who is coming to see about buying it? Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” he said. Trois, 75, played guitar in the Soul Survivors, best known for the 1967 tune “Expressway to Your Heart.”
FREDERICKSBURG — On a recent weekday, collector extraordinaire Charles Trois packed up some of his countless historic and artistic items in preparation for moving them off the estate he built here in the shadows of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.
Trois, the onetime guitarist for a briefly famous 1960s rock band, had to beat a June 5 deadline to remove his “stuff ” from the property. Already packed and gone were “thousands and thousands” of cap guns that filled a museum he operated on the grounds.
He still had plenty left to move — from life-size wax sculptures depicting Jesus Christ and his 12 disciples at the Last Supper to a teapot featuring two deer heads to an 1880s Italian figurine that once greeted theatergoers.
Trois has amassed a fortune in collectibles — yet he’s broke.
“I got caught into a money crunch and no cash flow,” he said.
That’s why Trois has been forced to pack his things and vacate the nearly 40-acre namesake estate that resembles an oldworld village in the Texas Hill Country.
Trois pledged his half interest in the property — an ex-wife owns the other half — as collateral on a $2.5 million loan. He failed to pay back the loan and the lender recently foreclosed.
Efforts to dig himself out of the financial hole have only exacerbated his troubles and gotten him sideways with those he was work
ing with — including an Ohio auctioneer, a “treasure hunter” facing a possible prison sentence, a Houston museum-exhibit designer and a cryptocurrency promoter.
“Charles is a very trusting person, and often assumes that people will treat him like he would treat other people, and as a result, he often doesn’t do a good job of reducing his agreements to writing,” said San Antonio attorney David “Clay” Snell, who represents Trois. “Unfortunately, he’s encountered some unscrupulous people that have taken advantage of his trustworthy nature.”
Others say Trois has only himself to blame for his circumstances.
Trois is suing to get back two paintings purportedly worth millions — an 11-by-20-foot painting titled “Custer’s Last Rally,” featuring George Armstrong Custer at the fateful 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, and “Barely There” by the late Port Arthur artist Robert Rauschenberg.
The collector also is suing the cryptocurrency promoter for allegedly reneging on a $125 million deal to buy various paintings by such artists as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
In spite of his financial troubles, Trois remains obsessed with fulfilling a dream of building a museum to display his possessions.
Trois recently discussed how the wax Jesus and disciples will be a museum fixture. Yet he later mentioned that he’s negotiating to sell the work to raise money and perhaps get back his half-interest in the estate.
“You know who is coming to see about buying it? Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” Trois said. Reminded that he already said the wax display would be part of his museum, he replied, “I know, I need it. But I’m broke! I’m broke!”
Rock star turned collector
Trois, a Philadelphia native, now 75, gained fame as guitarist in the band Soul Survivors — best known for the 1967 tune “Expressway to Your Heart.” The song hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Trois later reinvented himself as a painter, real estate investor, builder, architect, furniture maker and fervent collector of seemingly anything of value.
Being a rock star gained him fame, not fortune. He credited some savvy real estate investing in the 1980s for allowing him to amass his collection.
“A little bit of everything,” Trois said.
Trois said he built the Trois Estate at Enchanted Rock, the compound in the Hill Country, with two others about 20 years ago. There’s an 18-room lodge, an oldtimey saloon, a small chapel and even an underground grotto complete with a Playboy Mansion-esque swimming pool.
No less an authority than Barry Weiss — a star of the A&E Network reality show “Storage Wars” earlier in the decade — raved about Trois’ collection.
“You’re not going to believe this guy’s collection,” Weiss told an acquaintance on an episode of his short-lived spin-off series “Barry’d Treasure.” “I mean, I’ve seen collections and I’ve seen collections. This guy, it’s over the top — not only the way he displays it but the amount of stuff, the rarity, the obscurity.”
Among the items Trois exhibited on the show were a dagger and a bulldog revolver that he said had belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte and Custer, respectively.
As much as Trois likes to collect things, though, he has a hard time parting with any of it, according to Michael Barrick, Trois’ friend before the pair had a falling out.
A self-described artifact and treasure hunter, Barrick recounted how he begged Trois to sell some of his collection to pay off debts.
“When it came time to part ways with the things, he couldn’t turn (them) loose,” Barrick said.
It was Barrick who suggested Trois contact Dallas-based private equity lender Revere Capital about a loan to ease his financial pressures.
RevCap, a Revere-related entity, loaned $2.5 million to Trois in 2014. As a condition, Trois put down as collateral his half interest in the Trois Estate’s real estate, as well as “Custer’s Last Rally,” the 1881 painting by Irish artist John Mulvany.
An appraisal on the deed of trust for the loan valued the painting at $9 million to $10 million. A more recent appraisal valued it at as much as $23 million.
Both Trois and RevCap agreed that Tony Webber, CEO of Houston-based Southwest Museum Services, which designs museum exhibits, would hold the painting.
Within a year, RevCap would move to foreclose on the collateral.
A failed auction
In the meantime, Barrick tried to sell some of Trois’ artwork and began spending time at the Fredericksburg estate.
Trois said he bought 18 paintings by van Gogh, Picasso and Dalí — he calls it the Vaselli collection — from his ex-wife Mavi’s mother, Maria Frau, a former Italian film actress who was married to Giovanni Vaselli.
Giovanni Vaselli was the grandson of Count Romolo Vaselli, who owned the Hotel de Russie in Rome after World War II. Romolo Vaselli knew famous artists such as Picasso and Henri Matisse and bought art directly from them, Trois said.
Reached by phone, Mavi Vaselli confirmed that Trois bought the Vaselli collection, but she didn’t know the number of paintings.
Barrick set up a showing of the artwork at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, said Kansas attorney Tim Stein, who also represents Trois. The venue was an odd choice given the art was displayed in a room full of rocks and minerals, Stein said, and hardly anyone showed. Worse, none of the art was sold. Then, around the spring of 2016, Barrick arranged for Trois to sell some of his collectibles through Apple Tree Auction Center Inc. in Ohio. Trois said he was going to use proceeds from the auction to pay back RevCap on the $2.5 million loan.
Apple Tree paid Trois a $300,000 advance in exchange for providing $2 million worth of items for the auction. In a federal lawsuit that it filed in late summer 2016, Apple Tree said Trois was interested in selling 500 guns and a collection of antiques and fine and decorative items, numbering 500.
Trois delivered only 117 guns and 164 items, Apple Tree alleged. The collection generated just $112,164 in sales, leaving the auction house almost $188,000 in the hole, Apple Tree alleged.
Trois filed his own suit, accusing Apple Tree of failing to insist on a minimum bid or reserve as it promised. Many of his items sold for a fraction of their value, he added. The litigation was dismissed in November.
As an aside, Barrick pleaded guilty in May to five counts of bank fraud in a Louisville, Ky., case unrelated to his dealings with Trois. Barrick faces up to 150 years in federal prison when he is sentenced in August.
Painting never sold
After agreeing with RevCap that Webber would hold “Custer’s Last Rally,” Trois subsequently granted Webber the right to market another one of his paintings — “Barely There” by Robert Rauschenberg.
Trois promised Webber a commission if he could find a buyer who would pay more than $2 million for the piece, according to an April lawsuit that Trois filed in Bexar County district court.
Webber was given a year to sell “Barely There” after first getting it authenticated. But the painting never sold and Webber has refused to return the painting, Trois alleged in his suit.
When first contacted about Trois’ lawsuit, Webber — who had not been served — replied, “Well, he owes me like $425,000 that I’ve loaned him. That’s No. 1. I’ve told him that he can have any of the paintings back if he pays me my receivables.”
Trois puts the figure he owes at closer to $90,000.
Asked in a follow-up interview how he could turn over the “Custer” painting once he was paid by Trois, given the judgment obtained by RevCap against Trois, Webber said his comment “needs to be corrected.”
In his answer to the suit, Webber said he must have RevCap’s consent to release the “Custer” to Trois.
RevCap and Trois were making arrangements to have the “Custer” transferred to a third party to hold it until they could decide how it can be sold, according to RevCap attorney James Henry Jr. of Dallas.
Trois prefers auctioning the painting. He stands to pocket any of the sale amount above the roughly $500,000 he still owes RevCap, save a commission. RevCap was owed, with interest, roughly $3.2 million. RevCap acquired Trois’ 50 percent interest in the Trois Estate at a March foreclosure auction with a $2.7 million credit bid.
“It’s a beautiful historical work of art,” said Scott Ferguson, executive director of Las Vegas-based Art Encounter, who appraised the “Custer” painting at as much as $23 million in 2016. “It’s really the scale of the work of art and the fact that the artist traveled to the site to interview people to get a really true perspective on the Battle (of the Little Bighorn) itself. It’s a part of American history.”
Where’s ‘Barely There’?
What’s become of the Rauschenberg painting, meanwhile, is more of a mystery. Webber said he gave it to John Schumacher of Houston — the painting’s previous owner — because Webber alleged Trois never paid Schumacher.
Schumacher couldn’t be reached for comment. Stein disputed Webber’s take.
Trois’ lawyers said Webber’s account marks the latest in a series of stories he has given about the painting. They provided emails and other documents that they say Webber sent.
A 2016 invoice stamped “PAID” shows Trois sold the painting to Webber for $800,000. Trois’ name is signed at the bottom, but he maintained that it’s not his signature.
“It looks like Mickey Mouse signed it,” Trois said of the signature that appears to have been penned by a shaky hand. It doesn’t resemble Trois’ signature on other documents in the public record.
According to an April 26 email
to Stein, Webber said he asked Trois to drop the lawsuit because a Dallas broker was “very near to selling the Rauschenberg.” The sale would collapse if the buyer got wind of the lawsuit, Webber added.
Yet in the same email, Webber said he passed the painting on to Schumacher because Webber had received a “directive from the FBI not to sell or borrow on the Rauschenberg.”
Webber didn’t elaborate on the FBI’s interest, but in a Feb. 26 email, he said agents want to “seize it and confiscate.” Stein said he was told by Webber that the Rauschenberg was on a list of fraudulent art.
The FBI doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation, a spokeswoman said.
Webber claimed ownership of the painting in an August article in the Beaumont Enterprise, which chronicled the artwork’s return to Rauschenberg’s hometown of Port Arthur and its appearance at the Museum of the Gulf Coast.
“Barely There” originally traded as payment on a tab of deli sandwiches and cream sodas in the 1960s. Webber said the painting was appraised two years ago by a Houston firm for $4 million, but he told the Beaumont Enterprise it could fetch as much as $20 million in a sale.
The painting is consistent with Rauschenberg’s early “combines” — assemblages of paint, film negatives, buttons and other materials from the streets of New York City. He lived there beginning in the early 1950s.
“Visible beneath a layer of sepia and orange paint is a copy of an advertisement for Max Factor’s latest makeup lines and the painting’s namesake, ‘Barely There,’ which came on the market in the early ’60s,” the newspaper reported.
The bad blood between Webber and Trois goes beyond the Rauschenburg.
Webber blames Trois for $60,000 he said he lost in a cryptocurrency investment known as Meta 1 Coin, a private digital currency purportedly backed by art and gold.
Trois sued the Meta 1 Coin Trust and trustee Robert Dunlap for fraud in January in Bexar County district court. Trois alleged that Meta 1 agreed to buy the Vaselli art collection for $125 million but never made a $37.5 million down payment.
On June 13, state District Judge Mary Lou Alvarez issued a roughly $25.5 million judgment against Dunlap and Meta 1 after they failed to appear before her for a hearing related to Trois’ lawsuit. She also ruled they have no interest in the artwork that he said is his.
Dunlap has appealed the judgment.
Leaving a legacy
Despite Trois’ financial troubles and legal frays, he isn’t giving up on leaving a legacy — his planned 350,000-square-foot museum that chronicles the “evolution of civilization.”
“This is a major, major project,” Trois said.
Trois said he was working with San Antonio architecture firm Overland Partners on the project. The San Antonio Express-News emailed Overland, which prompted a call from Trois.
The Meta 1 troubles dealt a setback for his museum plans, Trois explained.
“Well, we’re still working together,” Trois said. “It’s on hold.”
Thanks to Carl for the forward :)