DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Jason Beltrez, an unemployed Brooklyn dad, says he bought a red painting emblazoned with an orange dollar sign at a flea market 10 years ago - but only recently found out it was an Andy Warhol worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Beltrez, 44, and the mega-auctionhouse Christie's Inc. were sued in Manhattan Supreme Court by a SoHo gallery claiming the painting was stolen from its showroom in February 1998.
The Martin Lawrence Galleries filed the lawsuit, which became public Tuesday, after Christie's checked with the Art Loss Register before putting the painting - one of two "Dollar Sign" Warhols stolen from the gallery - up for sale and after Beltrez approached Christie's with the artwork last September.
Beltrez, who lives in Park Slope, said Tuesday that he bought the painting for $180 in New Jersey 10 years ago.
"I bought it from an open-air market," said the father of three and former C-Town supermarket manager.
Beltrez said the painting hung on his wall until last fall, when a pal suggested it might be the work of the late pop artist.
"A friend said something about the Campbell's Soup guy," Beltrez said, referring to Warhol's famous red-and-white soup can series. The painting, made in 1981, is part of a series of pieces he made of the dollar sign beginning in the 1960s in different colors and sizes.
It was estimated to be worth up to $400,000 by Christie's when the auctionhouse appraised it last year, an art world source confirmed. Another, larger, painting in the series sold for $4.5 million in 2006.
On Sept. 18, Beltrez took the painting to Christie's, a move that ultimately reignited a long-dormant NYPD investigation into the theft of the gallery's two missing Warhols. The Police Department confirmed that its major case squad is investigating but offered no further comment.
Beltrez, who used to live in lower Manhattan, has not been charged with a crime.
"If I knew it was stolen, would I go to Christie's?" Beltrez said, adding that cops said they wanted to give him a polygraph but never followed up.
According to court records, Beltrez has a criminal record dating back to 1996, and includes drug, disorderly conduct and patronizing a prostitute charges.
Gallery officials said they were delighted to find the painting - even if they don't have their hands on it yet.
"We are most pleased with the recovery of this unique artwork by Andy Warhol," said Eric Dannemann, president of Martin Lawrence Galleries, which has dealt in Warhols for years. Christie's was named in the suit, but as a "disinterested third party," according to its chief counsel, Keith Carlise.
"We are simply storing the work of art until the lawsuit is resolved," Carlise said.
The question of who owns the painting is in the courts, though art theft experts say the law clearly protects the art's title owner, the gallery.