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Conrad Black portrait still a tough sell

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The frenzy of publicity surrounding Conrad Black hasn't been enough to help Lisa Bajor unload her painting of a youthful Conrad Black dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte with the CN Tower in the background.

Mrs. Bajor, 76, has been trying to sell the thing for decades.

She was hoping the recent hype surrounding the former media baron in the lead-up to his criminal trial might help. Most North Americans now know who Lord Black is, and "he is such an interesting figure," she said yesterday.

She recently resorted to listing the painting on the online auction site eBay, where she says she has been selling things from time to time to supplement her pension since her husband died.

The painting has no official bids. Mrs. Bajor said she's received some inquiries, but no one has matched her asking price of $9,995 (U.S.). That doesn't surprise those familiar with the portrait's history; it has been a tough sell from the start.

Back in 1982, John Kaltenhauser, then a struggling artist, painted the portrait after reading a magazine article on Lord Black.

"He was supposedly this young up-and-coming business tycoon," Mr. Kaltenhauser, 58, said yesterday from his home in Scarborough. "I thought it was pretty impressive, so I wanted to do a painting of him. I put him with the CN Tower in the background to signify that he was making his mark in Toronto."

Mr. Kaltenhauser was hoping Lord Black might be interested in the portrait.

"I thought he'd get a kick out of it. . . . The article mentioned that he was a collector of toy soldiers, and liked to play Napoleon games."

Mr. Kaltenhauser's wife, Loretta, contacted a secretary at Lord Black's office and arranged to drop the portrait off for a viewing.

A few days later, "we got a call back, and the secretary said he wasn't interested in buying it," Mr. Kaltenhauser said.

But the Kaltenhausers were in luck. Lord Black's good friend, Henry (Hal) Jackman, who was chairman of Victoria and Grey Trustco Ltd., saw the painting and "was really crazy about it," Mrs. Kaltenhauser said. Mr. Jackman wanted to set it up in his basement for when he and Lord Black played their war games, Mrs. Kaltenhauser said.

"He got a kick out of that Napoleon outfit," Mr. Kaltenhauser said.

Mrs. Kaltenhauser is still kicking herself a bit over the price tag. "I think it was something like $4,400. We didn't even know what to ask. [Mr. Jackman] just asked what we wanted, we could have said $10,000, but I just kind of picked something out of a hat. I said '$4,400,' and he said, 'fine.' It's like, oh nuts, I should have said $10,000."

Now Mrs. Bajor is learning just how small the market is for humorous portraits.

She came into possession of the painting in the mid-80s, when Mr. Jackman donated it to a fundraising auction for the Canadian Opera Company. Mr. Jackman bid against her and Mrs. Bajor says she secured the painting for about $4,200.

A few years later, she tried to raffle it off in a draw to raise money to buy a headstone for the grave of Rosa Becker, a woman who shot herself after years of unsuccessfully trying to collect a $150,000 court award against her common-law husband of 19 years.

Mrs. Bajor, who ran a Queen Street West bar and restaurant operation in her younger years, says that didn't work out.

The price charged for tickets for the draw was too high and there was little interest. So she paid for the headstone herself, she said.

A friend is housing the painting for her, she said, and running her eBay ad. It describes the painting as "an incredible original portrait of a once-great business leader, painted in oils," and lures bidders with an offer to "own an outstanding piece of Canadian business history!"

It acknowledges "a small area of damage to the front of the canvas, which does not extend through the back" as well as "a small scratch near the artist's signature."

Mrs. Bajor is a big fan of Lord Black's, but says she must part with the painting for the money.

"I think he's the smartest guy after Pierre Trudeau," she said. "I think that's why he's going to win."

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