I Know Nothing

German immigrant Peter Schmitz, artist to Denver's trust-funders, won't say who killed Greg Lopez. It isn't his only secret.

Another friend from Schmitz's early days in LoDo is McGuigan of Enoteca, the upscale wine bar across the street from Union Station. Schmitz, says McGuigan, "is the quintessential artist. He's eccentric, but not eccentric in the way a non-artist might be; not like a woman who has thirty cats. He has that artistic temperament, where he can paint for 36 straight hours and then sleep for two days. He's very creative, very different."

McGuigan has a master's degree in art history and collects primarily nineteenth-century American art, but he made an exception when it came to purchasing Schmitz's work. "I really don't collect contemporary art," he says, "but I enjoy Peter and his artwork. He does almost photorealistic water colors and extremely precisionist pen-and-ink renderings and some abstract work. I've got several of his abstracts and a bunch of watercolors."

"Peter," McGuigan continues, "is a hopeless romantic, like Byron or Shelley--the pursuit of romance kind of thing. I like that aspect of his art, a throwback to the eighteenth-century romantic ideal. It's very European."

But art is a subjective thing. And Schmitz has more than his share of critics. "It's just dreadful stuff," says one collector. "Awful."

"It's just not to my taste," one local art consultant says diplomatically. "Bad Seventies record-cover art," says another.

"To tell the truth," says Joshua Hassel at the Mackey Gallery, "his art is not particularly good. We would not show it."

That's just fine with Schmitz--he prefers not to market his art through galleries, anyway. According to Denver artist and print-shop owner Mark Lunning, Schmitz "didn't like the local art scene; he felt he was above all that." But his primary reason for avoiding galleries was financial, says fellow artist and Schmitz pal David Uhl: Gallery owners take a big slice of a painting's selling price.

There is a way to cut out the middle man, Hassel concedes. "Sometimes people say, 'I'm a famous artist,' and they market themselves exclusively to rich people. And they meet people in bars and they manage to endear themselves to people with money."

By most accounts, that's precisely how Schmitz sold his work--by hobnobbing at parties and posh eateries and worming his way into the hearts and wallets of the trust-fund crowd. "He told me he specifically hung out with rich people so they would buy his art," Lunning says. "And he could find them."

Schmitz was engaged in one such sales quest roughly five years ago when he met up with the son of a long-established Denver family, an encounter the man says is forever etched in his mind. "I was invited to his house for cocktails and to see his art," says the man, who asks not to be identified by name. "I thought it was a social invitation, but it turned out to be a let's-try-and-sell-him-art thing, which was okay. It didn't offend me that much."

Although he declined to buy one of Schmitz's paintings, he says, he did agree to accompany a group of the artist's friends to a local restaurant. "It started out on an interesting level, because I had just returned from Germany, and I thought it would be interesting to talk about my trip," says the man. "But there was nothing I could say that was interesting to him, because he was very pretentious and always trying to one-up me.

"I told him that I'd stayed at a castle, and all of a sudden, he was an aristocrat. He was very pretentious about his background. Now, from my experience with the European elite, they don't tell you what they are--you figure it out. If they have to tell you that they're better than you are, it's phony."

Peter Schmitz tells anyone who will listen that he's a famous artist--"internationally known" is one of his pet phrases--and that he has clients in Chicago, New York, Tokyo and Paris. But those claims are generally disbelieved by those in Denver art circles.

Schmitz "was about as obscure and unknown in the art world as it's possible to imagine," says Westword art critic Michael Paglia. He isn't even listed in the Colorado art registry, which maintains a list of 1,650 artists throughout the state. (Artists voluntarily submit biographies and slides of their works to be included in the registry.) Nor does he appear in the Art in America annual, which carries 3,800 listings of museums, artists and galleries.

"He wasn't a cutting-edge artist or significant enough to be in the elite crowd of the art world," says Lunning. "I don't think he sold internationally, though he may have had clients from other places. I don't think his collectors' resume would be nearly as impressive as he says."

And if Schmitz's claims that he received $10,000 to $20,000 for his artworks are true, says a local art consultant, his curriculum vitae would have to contain some very impressive names indeed. "As a rule," says the consultant, "people who have collections really want to know what they're buying. They want to know if the artist's work is in museums or any major collections, if the artist has won any major awards and what shows he's been in.

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