Falling From Grace

Richard Rother lived by his good name. When the cops took that away from him, he walked off a ten-story building.

Others say that Rother had a chronic case of seller's remorse--he was impatient to sell his haul and recoup his investment, but then he'd fret that he'd sold too cheaply. He frequently accused dealers of taking advantage of him, even if they were making only a modest profit on the deal themselves.

"I never made enough off Richard to make it worth dealing with him," sighs one Denver art dealer. "He was always bitching about how this guy or that one ripped him off, and then I'd hear he was saying the same thing about me behind my back."

Yet there was more bothering Rother than the price of a given deal. After a long day of hustling, he'd retreat to his apartment and work his way through a twelve-pack of Old Milwaukee. He never talked about moving up to the next rung of the business, maybe opening his own store; he never seemed to believe he was ready for anything but the next day of picking and beer. At one point he flirted with photography, taking arty pictures of desolate places--empty chairs in sidewalk cafes, deserted public spaces. But picking was his true vocation and drinking his release. When he didn't drink, he hardly said anything at all. Alcohol "smoothed him out a bit," says Boderke, made him almost sociable.

Boderke met Rother when she was working as a seamstress for vintage clothing stores. He encouraged her in her interest in making jewelry, and as her jewelry business grew she came to rely on his judgment and support. For a time several years ago they were lovers, but it didn't last; after a few days together, Boderke says, she found herself getting physically ill from Rother's steady consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. For the last eight years of his life they were close friends.

"Our friendship actually got better, and that's what I miss," Boderke says. "He knew what friendship was."

Rother confided secrets to Boderke that he rarely shared with anyone else. He told her about the loss of his mother, who'd died of health problems in her thirties, and about a father who rejected him. He hinted darkly at sexual abuse by a Catholic priest and other childhood disasters. The German-born Boderke had fled her own family years before because she didn't fit in ("I didn't fulfill my mother's expectations," she says simply), and she thought she understood. But when she suggested that these ancient wounds could be healed, Rother responded with a kind of weary fatalism.

"Richard was a good person, but he was in pain," Boderke says. "That's why he drank so much. I always told him, 'This pain and frustration that you have, you could really turn it around'--but I don't think he believed that. He talked about himself like he was an orphan that nobody wanted. He had a hard time letting go."

In some ways, the past loomed larger in Rother's mind than the present grind or the invisible future--as a certain Southern alcoholic writer once said, it wasn't even past. He was haunted by memories of friends who'd died, and he told Boderke that he could feel their presence on occasion, leading him to a big score.

"Sometimes he'd say this one or that one had guided him to find a particular piece," she recalls. "You couldn't talk to him about it, but he did seem somewhat magical at times, like everywhere he went something would turn up. He really believed in synchronism, that everything was a matter of timing."

No one knew better than Rother the importance of being in the right place at the right time. Last year everything seemed to be heading his way. He was consistently finding good merch cheaply, including paintings worth thousands of dollars, and he had the contacts to move it all quickly. But one day last fall his sense of synchronicity failed him, and he walked into an antique store called That Place at the wrong time.

Six weeks later he was dead.

Running a flower shop and antique business a few steps off East Colfax Avenue has given Joseph Bankston more than a passing appreciation of the varieties of street life. So when a swarthy, fast-talking stranger walked into his store, That Place, one afternoon last September, Bankston knew something wasn't right.

The man didn't fit. He was nicely dressed, but he was carrying a backpack loaded with a three-piece sterling silver coffee set. And he launched into this jive routine--spouting out, "How you doing, bro?" to Bankston, who is black--while seeming to know little about the set he was trying to sell. Bankston, who says he rarely buys merchandise from walk-ins, was immediately suspicious.

"You have ID and all of that?" Bankston asked.
"Oh, no, am I supposed to?" the man responded.
"Yeah, you have to have ID."
"Oh, shit."

It was at that point that Richard Rother, who happened to be shooting the breeze with Bankston when the stranger appeared, inserted himself into the deal. He told the stranger that he needed ID to sell to Bankston--dealers are supposed to require identification from sellers they don't know and to record the purchases in a register book, to guard against buying stolen property--but "you just sell it to me, you don't."

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