Dimming light: Galleries claim Kinkade's a fraud

There's a dark side to Thomas Kinkade, painter of light. At least that's the claim being made in a lawsuit by Jeff Spinello, owner of the Main Street Gallery on the Downtown Mall, which until 18 months ago sold Kinkade paintings exclusively.

"Put the beanie baby, Jim and Tammy Baker, and Enron with a Christian twist, and you've got what happened to Thomas Kinkade and his publishing company," says Spinello.

Spinello isn't alone in his cynicism.

An article in the September 8 issue of People magazine details complaints made by a slew of Thomas Kinkade gallery owners across the nation.

Among the claims: that Kinkade's Christian-values company, Media Arts Group Inc., mislead those owners, convincing them that the artist's peaceful renderings of cottages bathed in light were a sure bet, guaranteed to bring them business success beyond their wildest dreams. In fact, according to his website, Kinkade is the "America's most collected living artist."

With that kind of fan base, how could a gallery go wrong?

"I was told only two dealers had ever failed," Thomas Baggett, owner of a Kinkade Gallery in Port Charles, Louisiana, tells People. "One had cancer and died. The other one ended up in a mental institution."

Spinello says he got the same spiel when he first looked into opening a gallery. Now, he says, Kinkade might as well be painting going-out-of-business signs.

"Go on Thomas Kinkade.com and look up galleries," says Spinello. "Half don't exist anymore. If everything's fine and everybody's doing great, why aren't there any galleries anymore?"

The problem, says Spinello, is that Media Arts has undermined galleries by selling the same paintings at deep discounts frequently on the home shopping network QVC and at a discount chain called Tuesday Morning.

Media Arts spokesperson Scott Tagliarino says the accusations of unfair selling practices are unfounded. The QVC appearances, he says, are per contract four times a year, and the Tuesday Morning situation was a one-time sale of Kinkade prints on paper, not canvas, back in 2001.

Another, and perhaps more damaging, claim made by Spinello and fellow gallery owners is that Kinkade no longer paints his own works. The text on the certificate that comes with each Kinkade work has changed, Spinello says. Where they once promised a "limited edition of an original painting by Thomas Kinkade..." the wording is now more vague, which Spinello believes allows for work by apprentices and others.

And Kinkade's signature on each painting? That's now done by a computer, Spinello alleges, a far cry from the signature done in ink mixed with Kinkade's own blood on a $10,000 print.

"Kinkade quit painting his own paintings," says Spinello. "People started noticing."

"I haven't heard that one before," says Tagliarino. "Thomas Kinkade paints all of his artwork himself," he says, "and he signs all of his original artwork himself."

Since the works are signed before they are reproduced, Tagliarino explains, there would be no need for a computerized signature.

But although he denies Spinello's claims, Tagliarino acknowledges the economy has been hard on the galleries and on Media Arts as well.

A July 30 article in the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal jabs, "It's almost as if Thomas Kinkade were painting with red ink."

According to that article, Media Arts posted a net loss of $3.6 million, or 27 cents per share on revenues of $10.8 million for its second fiscal quarter, which ended June 30. That compares to a net loss of $633,000, or a nickel a share on revenues of $21 million in the same quarter a year earlier. Not a pretty picture, indeed.

The scene gets darker when you add in the lawsuits. At least 10 have been filed, including one by Michigan-based Kinkade gallery owner Jim Coté, who is suing for $14.4 million. Spinello says he's begun an independent lawsuit against the company using a Michigan lawyer, Norman Yatooma, who's also representing Coté. Yatooma did not return the Hook's calls by presstime.

Tagliarino says the number of lawsuits is misleading. Of the 10 suits he acknowledges, all but threeincluding Coté's have been put into binding arbitration. He says many of them were actually countersuits by gallery owners responding to Media Arts' efforts to collect money.

Spinello says that may be true, but that Media Arts' business practices made it nearly impossible for galleries to succeed. Though he won't disclose the exact sum he's asking for, he says it doesn't approach Coté's millions– just enough to cut his losses. Time is of the essence, he says, and he just wants to settle up as quickly as possible.

Since lawsuits aren't an option for some owners of Kinkade paintings, Spinello says quick action is necessary. "If you have any Kinkades that you think are worth anything," he advises, "get rid of them."


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