NEW YORK • Ten years or so ago, as actor Alec Baldwin remembers it, gallery owner Mary Boone sent him an invitation to a show of work by painter Ross Bleckner, an artist whom she represented and he had befriended.
The card featured a reproduction of Bleckner's Sea And Mirror, a work from 1996, when the artist was at the height of his popularity.
Baldwin fell hard for the painting and, in 2010, he asked Boone to find the collector who owned it and prise it away.
She did, but now the two are in a dispute. He says Boone sold him a copy passed off as the original and he is now pitted against two formidable players in the city's rarefied world of art and money.
For years, Baldwin said in an interview this month, he carried the image of Sea And Mirror in his shoulder bag, alongside a picture of one of his daughters and his father. "There was a kind of beauty and simplicity" to the work, he recalled.
Boone said the collector would sell, but at a premium, and Baldwin put up the US$190,000.
"I love this thing so much," he said in a 2012 speech about support for the arts at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, proudly recounting his quest. "Three months later, it was hanging in my house, in my apartment in New York."
But Baldwin said something about the painting always gave him unease. He noticed the composition lacked a feathery quality in the brush strokes he had admired in the photos of the work sold at Sotheby's, and seemed brighter.
It smelled, somehow, new.
Baldwin finally had a Sotheby's expert compare his painting with a catalogue image from the 2007 auction. The expert said, "This is not that painting", Baldwin recalled.
He said he believed that Boone, frustrated that the collector would not agree to sell, persuaded Bleckner to take an unfinished work from the same series, finish painting it and sell it to him without saying a word.
Bleckner's office said he could not be reached for comment.
Boone, through her lawyer, disputed Baldwin's account, asserting he was never misled about the identity of the work.
"He's wrong that the painting is a copy. It's an original and very fine work of art by Ross Bleckner," Boone's lawyer Ted Poretz said in a statement.
"The gallery never likes to have unhappy clients and it has turned cartwheels to try to satisfy Alec Baldwin. It has repeatedly offered Alec Baldwin a full refund, among other things."
Baldwin, however, has e-mail messages that buttress parts of his account. The Boone gallery also stamped a number - 7449 - on the back of the painting it sold to Baldwin, the same number it had listed next to the work it had said it was pursuing from the collector.
Baldwin said he met the Manhattan district attorney's office this summer, but was told that a criminal case could not be made.
He continues to be a Bleckner supporter. Baldwin's foundation helped to underwrite an exhibition this month on Long Island that featured Bleckner's paintings. He owns five of Bleckner's works.
Baldwin, who met Bleckner at parties in the Hamptons, where the actor owns a home, became an admirer of his work in the 1990s.
Bleckner, who had a Guggenheim retrospective in 1995 at 45, had been an ascendant art star of the 1980s.
He belonged to a stable of young artists who helped Boone build her reputation in the 1980s, though two of her stars from that time, Eric Fischl and David Salle, have since left for rival dealers.
Baldwin has an e-mail message in which Bleckner is deeply apologetic, but does not directly address about what.
"I'm so sorry about all of this," he wrote. "I feel so bad about this... What can I do to make this up to you?"
He said Bleckner told him he had started the painting in 1996 and finished it in 2010, though he had dated it 1996.
"I don't know what Ross knew," Baldwin said. "Ross may have been instructed to make a copy. I don't know."
Baldwin acknowledged that the work he has was created by Bleckner and that it looks quite similar to the painting he coveted. But he said it was not the work he had fallen in love with.
NEW YORK TIMES