These days, it seems there are more and more elaborate scams going on. My wife recently got a phone call and email about lowering our gas bills, for example, and we’ve debated for days about whether these were real. The one I almost fell for was so elaborate and so seemingly innocent that I didn’t see any warning signs at all, until the very end. Fortunately, then, I pulled back and didn’t get burnt.

I share this primarily as a cautionary tale. However, I must say I also find it a great, meandering “shaggy dog story,” and I’m enormously amused by the clever effort of the two Wile E. Coyotes with whom I interacted. I’m glad that when it was finally time to reel me in, they weren’t so smart after all!

To tell the whole story, I think it’s best to go back to the very beginning.

The gift

For several years quite a while back, I was a painter. My work was sold in galleries, and more importantly, it played a profound role in emotional healing at a critical time of my life [see “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”]. During this period, my intuition moved my brush so directly and “knew” so much about colour that I didn’t seem to be able to put it to paper or canvas without coming away with something significant.

After several years, the active gift began to fade. I still do an illustration now and then for a poem or story, but I don’t have that fecund connection that I used to with the brush as a magic wand, or an image in mind for the next painting as soon as I’ve finished the previous one.

Painting - Talk about surrealism

A rare piece of recent work (2013)

I’ve speculated about this loss. It may have come about because once people began to buy the paintings in the gallery—no doubt feeling the same healing qualities in the images that I’d felt during their creation—I experienced a very subtle shift in my creative process. I began to subtly gear my work to what people might want, rather than what came spontaneously from my inner well of deep silence. My paintings remained in the “primitive modern” realm, but became more ostensibly so, closer to clichés—knowingly mimicking African or Australian Aboriginal art, for example.

Maybe the truth is that I no longer needed the archetypal realm to be as directly accessible as during the rite of passage that was my healing via art. It all remains something of a mystery.

Art cards

Even while the paintings were in the gallery, we, its stable of artists, were making postcards of our work. We’d found a printer there in Myrtle Beach who did a nice job, inexpensively.

When the Internet age got underway, someone told me, “Wow, you should sell those cards online!” It was another year before I got my first PC, but when I did, I sought out sites that might want to sell them. I succeeded in finding such a site and made a number of packets of cards in accordance with specifications they gave me; then, I sat back and waited for the orders. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t know, this particular site didn’t survive for long.

A few years later, exploring online, I found a printer who’d done wonderful work with high-resolution photos submitted online. My newly printed cards did sell, mostly at local fundraisers from which I was donating the profits, but I also advertised them on my website and got a few orders.

This has continued up to the present time. The cards haven’t “taken off” as I’d once hoped, but every now and then someone, somewhere asks for some or buys a coffee mug on my CafePress page.

Painted coffee mug - Talk about surrealism

“Clowns at War” coffee mug

I wasn’t exactly astonished, therefore, to get an order a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised, however, to see that it came from the country Oman, in the Middle East! The client also sent me a link to a courier company that he said was the only one that would deliver, door-to-door, to Oman.

The fellow listed titles of seven pictures he’d seen on my website. I only had manufactured cards of two. However, I’ve done lots of handmade ones using photos affixed to blank notecards. Inspired for the sake of getting my work out to that side of the world, I took on the job.

I had to order the 4-by-6-inch blank notecards online and have them shipped to the local office supply outlet. That took about a week. During that time, I experimented with printing good images of the paintings, and also with backing them with coloured borders that harmonized with the colours in the paintings. I was spending more money than I could get away with charging for the seven cards, but I saw this as a prototype order. As I got re-involved with the images and the backgrounds, I became intoxicated with the beauty and creativity, feeling pretty much the same way I used to when painting!

"Universal mother" card - Talk about surrealism

“Universal Mother,” the card not pictured in the lead photo.

At last, the cards were ready. I took a photo of six of them (before printing the seventh) together and sent it to my client. He wrote back that not only was he very happy with them, his wife was, too. After making the last card, I sent the courier both addresses and the exact weight of the package: 4.5 ounces (128 g).

The next day, I received a detailed email reply from the courier, with impressive tables, all in blue ink. The upshot was that the price for delivering a 4 .5-ounce package from California to Oman, door to door, was $888.05!

I was stunned! Nevertheless, I figured, if the fellow in Oman wants to pay that much, it’s OK with me! For all I knew, he was an oil baron. I sent him the figure, asking him to work it out with the courier and then get back to me about when I should leave the package outside to be picked up.

Only after receiving my client’s next reply did I begin to wonder about him. He wrote, “I’m not going to pay the courier, that’s your job. I’ll reimburse you later in one payment for the courier fee plus the cards.”

My mind quickly cleared of any romantic mist about getting my work out around the world. I wrote the “client”: “Do you think I’m an idiot?” I never heard from him again. I realize now that there never were either “client” or “courier”—just an elaborate hoax. A friend told me she saw a documentary on TV about a seven-story building she thinks was in Turkey, completely devoted to running various scams like the one I was marked for.

Fortunately, the scam doesn’t seem to have caused me any damage. I filled out an online report with the local police, since I typed our home address on the courier form before realizing it was bogus, but I don’t expect a break in. It’s not like I was sending out expensive art pieces themselves, only cards.

Furthermore, the inspiration I felt while working with the images again is still there! They came through me, not from me, as Kahlil Gibran wrote of children and parents. And yet, they utilized “my” feelings and life circumstances to take form, so I feel proud of their originality, as a parent might feel proud of “his” child. I intend to set up a new website and make them more available to people worldwide. Yes, even in Oman—provided someone is genuinely willing to pay for shipment!

images 1-4: Max Reif