The Louis Almeida case should be closed. During a seven-year period in the ’80s, he took San Diego art collectors for hundreds of thousands of dollars through forgeries and fraud. At least, that’s what he admitted to when he was caught in 1989. He was sent to prison that same year, served his time, and was released in July 1994. But Almeida’s elaborate cons, ten years or more in the making, were never dismantled completely. They continue to play themselves out, and only Almeida knows where and how they will end.
Almeida limited his counterfeiting to one artist, the late Western painter Olaf Wieghorst. It was a smart choice. Wieghorst, a long-time resident of El Cajon, was prolific and hugely successful. His paintings sold literally as fast as he could make them — and at six-figure prices. He was very popular in San Diego, “a local gem,” as one admirer put it, which gave Almeida a ready base to cultivate. For an added whiff of legitimacy, Almeida, a skilled frame-maker in his own right, was Wieghorst’s personal framer and friend.
At his trial, Almeida, in a last-minute surprise, pleaded guilty to six counts of grand theft. In exchange, the prosecution dropped six more. Then came several months of wrangling over restitution. In the end, Almeida went to jail for the maximum term without repaying anyone and without answering dozens of questions about his crimes. Then–assistant district attorney Lantz Lewis (who has left the office and could not be reached) drew up 56 of them for the court. They are laid out on three single-spaced pages in Almeida’s case file in the older records section of San Diego Superior Court.
“Questions for Louis Esquivel Almeida,” reads the heading. Here’s a sampling: Who made the forgeries? Where were they made? What other fakes exist and where are they? Who now possesses the originals that have never been returned? Some of the fakes were elaborate photographic reproductions. Who did them? Did the operator know he or she was taking part in a criminal enterprise? Who else did Almeida sell forgeries to? Are there more forgeries still on the market or stashed away somewhere? How many people were in on the plan? Was Almeida forced by someone else to commit his crimes? If so, by whom? How many times had he faked the signature of Roy Wieghorst, Olaf’s son and business agent, who now manages the Wieghorst estate?”
Finally, two more the DA didn’t mention: Why did he do it, and how did he think he’d get away with it?
“They’re buying the man as much as the art,” Martin Petersen says of Wieghorst. Petersen is curator of paintings at the San Diego Museum of Art and an authority on and acquaintance of the painter. Wieghorst must have been quite a man. In 1972 a pair of his paintings sold for $1 million, a record price for a living artist at the time. Doug Jones, who owns the Jones Gallery in La Jolla, can instantly recall the first time he saw Wieghorst’s work some 40 years ago, when Jones was a boy. “He was painting some bucking horses on the counter of a store that sold Western gear. I thought that was just magic.”
At the height of his popularity in the ’50s and ’60s, Wieghorst sold paintings to Hollywood celebrities like John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. Wealthy conservatives admired him, too. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan bought his work, and would-be president Barry Goldwater wrote the foreword to the only biography written about him, William Reed’s Olaf Wieghorst (1969, Northland Press, Flagstaff). “When I first saw a painting by Olaf Wieghorst,” Goldwater writes, “I knew I had to have that painting…I see the Navajo faces, the long hair, the saddles, the horses, and I can know the Navajo.” Wieghorst was “a giant of a man, barrel-chested with muscular arms and hands as big as two of mine and twice as strong. He looked to me anything but an artist…”
“The horse has been my greatest teacher,” Wieghorst told Reed. “But he was not alone. The rolling prairies, the snow-capped mountains, the desert, the cow-camps, the breaking-corrals, the bawling calf, running iron, and the dusty trail of a cattle drive…I have sat on the rim of some canyon for hours at a time, watching rolling thunderclouds, clear summer skies, arid desert, and blue-green mountain country…As I watched nature’s wonders, it dawned on me how small and insignificant I was.”
Wieghorst was born into a middle-class Danish family in 1899, and as a boy spent time around horses. His father sent him to a Russian acrobat to be trained as a professional performer in Copenhagen, and in 1912, when Wieghorst was 13, the Jack Joyce Circus and Wild West Show came to town. It was a sensation. Painters Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, to whom Olaf would be compared later, were widely admired.
The star of the Jack Joyce was “the grandest thing I had ever seen,” Wieghorst recalled to his biographer. He was “dressed in goatskin chaps, a big ‘20-gallon’ cowboy hat and a bright red shirt with leather cuffs.” After the First World War, he moved to New York City and met his future wife, Mabel Walters. A newsreel about the U.S. Cavalry chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico inspired him to sign up for the Army. Seven years after seeing his first bucking bronco, he was finally headed west, to Ft. Bliss, Texas.
“I was completely taken with those cavalry horses,” he told Reed. “They were beautiful animals.” He sketched them with whatever materials he could find. He was documenting the closing days of the horse soldier, witnessing scenes that now can only be approximated on film, like a 3000-horse review at Ft. Bliss that climaxed in a mass cavalry charge.
In 1922 he was mustered out at age 23, along with some friends with whom he’d agreed to start a ranch. The informal partnership broke up when Wieghorst decided to take a job with a rancher in New Mexico named Cunningham. Wieghorst quit after several seasons, but Cunningham had made an impression. Wieghorst later incorporated the Cunningham “quarter-circle 2c” brand into his personal hallmark.