Kinkade paints 'em...says lawyer, slamming <I>Hook</I> story

Los Angeles lawyer Howard L. Weitzman has had a lot of high-profile clients: O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson when he was accused of molesting a boy in the early '90s, John DeLorean when he was busted in a government sting, and Kim Basinger when she wanted out of her Boxing Helena contract.

Now, he's representing "painter of light" Thomas Kinkade, who must not have liked a September 11 Hook article entitled "Dimming Light: Galleries claim Kinkade is a fraud." In a September 24 letter to The Hook, Weitzman demands that the "defamatory" article be corrected as required by California Civil Code.

In particular, Weitzman calls a statement that Kinkade "no longer paints his own works" libelous and actionable under California law, and he advises The Hook to "retract the defamatory statements about Mr. Kinkade in the article and cease all republication of it."

Weitzman and other lawyers are staying busy representing Kinkade– the painter of light is being sued by three Michigan gallery owners who claim the artist flooded the market with his paintings at deep discount outlets such as Tuesday Mornings, thus undermining their businesses, according to the Detroit News. And he's in binding arbitration with at least seven other gallery owners, according to Kinkade spokesperson Scott Tagliarino.

Locally, Main Street Gallery owner Jeff Spinello filed a claim September 26 for binding arbitration– not a lawsuit, as previously reported by The Hook– that also charges Media Arts with flooding the retail market and with using his own mailing list to compete with Spinello by selling directly to customers and thereby side-stepping the gallery entirely.

But Spinello's allegation in the September 11 article that "Kinkade quit painting his own paintings" is what has the artist calling in the big legal guns. Spinello's arbitration complaint claims Kinkade is "no longer solely responsible for painting the originals."

Spinello points to a change in the wording of Kinkade certificates of authenticity. For example, the certificate for "Season of Lights II," a limited edition of 37,903 impressions, extends the copyright to Kinkade "and/or any apprentices, assistants, designers, and graphic artists involved with the creation of the artwork."

In his arbitration complaint Spinello charges, "Media Arts Group interfered with and irreparably damaged Claimants' business by changing the language on the Certificate of Authenticity such that it stated Thomas Kinkade was no longer solely responsible for painting the originals which are used to produce the Limited Edition canvas artwork."

Why did the language of the certificates change to include the work of Kinkade "apprentices, assistants, designers and graphic artists involved with the creation of the artwork"?

"The company changed the language to give them the widest marketing opportunities available," says Weitzman. "It has nothing to do with others doing work that Kinkade takes credit for. Mr. Kinkade paints the paintings, period."

Weitzman also warns, "I know you're aware Mr. Spinello has an agenda."

Spinello declined to comment for this article, referring The Hook to his Michigan attorney, Norm Yatooma, who allegedly has a publicist to handle press inquiries. After Yatooma did not return repeated phone calls requesting the name of the publicist, a secretary in his office informed The Hook he would not respond to questions unless the paper hires him as its attorney.

Two weeks ago, Spinello walked a reporter through his gallery and pointed to an older Kinkade piece in which minute detail was apparent to the viewer, and then to a newer work with less sharply defined details.

"Thomas Kinkade is a great artist," said Spinello. As he gestured to a newer piece, he said, "This is not his work."

"That's so ridiculous," says Pat Gitt, spokesperson for Media Arts.

"Thomas Kinkade paints all of his artwork himself, and he signs all of his original artwork himself," Tagliarino said in the September 11 article.

Reiterates Weitzman: "Does anyone else but Kinkade work on the canvas? No."

Kinkade, a devout Christian, is called the most collected American artist and is known for his paintings of cottages, gardens, and gazebos. His "limited" editions of 183,239 copies– as is the case for "Carmel, Sunset on Ocean Avenue"– assure plenty of copies for Kinkade enthusiasts.

Some critics have called Kinkade's mass-produced lithographs an "art factory," according to the Detroit News. Others have dubbed it "McArt."

Yet Kinkade fans are legion. Among local collectors is Terry Dowdell, who is now jailed and awaiting sentencing for bilking investors of over $100 million in an international Ponzi scheme. Among the items auctioned from Dowdell's posh Rosemont residence last May were signed prints of "Home Town Morning" and "A Holiday Gathering."

It's no secret that Kinkade employs "master highlighters" who travel to galleries to enhance his prints. "Pieces explode with dimension and are brought to life with a stroke of the master highlighter's brush," says the Kinkade website.

No master highlighters will be coming to Spinello's Main Street Gallery any time soon. He's closing down the shop– but for now, while they last, he's got some great deals on Kinkade prints.

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