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Dark Portrait of a `Painter of Light'

Christian-themed artist Thomas Kinkade is accused of ruthless tactics and seamy personal conduct. He disputes the allegations.

March 05, 2006|Kim Christensen | Times Staff Writer

From 1997 through May 2005, Kinkade reaped more than $50 million in royalties from his prints and licensed product lines, according to testimony in the recently decided arbitration case. His images adorn air fresheners, night lights, teddy bears, toys, tote bags, pillows, umbrellas and La-Z-Boy loungers, which one retailer's ad describes as "something not merely to be acquired, but collected -- like fine art itself."

As he built his brand, Kinkade also came to embody its underlying themes of faith, family and life's blessings. He speaks lovingly of his childhood sweetheart, Nanette -- whom he married in 1982 -- and their four daughters, calling his family "my proudest achievement in life."

Often, he embeds their initials or images in his paintings. Sometimes he joins them there.

"There's Thom on his Harley," a saleswoman at one of the original Kinkade galleries, on Monterey's Cannery Row, said as she showed a visitor a print of "San Francisco, Lombard Street." Hanging nearby was "New York, Fifth Avenue," with Thom and one of his daughters in a '57 Chevy convertible.

Such whimsy illustrates the lighter side of the Kinkade his supporters say is genial and genuine, a "regular guy" with small-town roots. He also has raised millions for charities, including the Salvation Army and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

But a far more selfish portrait of the artist emerges from legal action brought by former gallery owners against Kinkade, Media Arts Group Inc. -- the public company he has since taken private -- and some who helped build it into a $250-million-a-year retail juggernaut before its sales flagged and its stock tanked.

Ex-dealers allege that the artist used his faith -- and manipulated theirs -- to induce them to invest in Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries, independently owned stores licensed to deal exclusively in his work. They also contend he sought to devalue the company before buying it back two years ago for $32.7 million, renaming it Thomas Kinkade Co.

Company executives and lawyers contend that a steep drop in the number of Signature galleries, which have dwindled to fewer than half of the 350 that once existed, is a result of a broad decline in the limited-edition art business, hastened by the dot-com crash, a shrinking economy and the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Many dealers had the ability to weather the effects of the recession; some dealers did not," said Chief Executive Dan Byrne.

But such arguments failed to persuade the arbitration panel, which on Feb. 23 ruled in favor of the former Virginia gallery owners, Karen Hazlewood and Jeffrey Spinello.

The panel found that the company and one of its executives, Richard F. Barnett, defrauded the couple by failing to disclose pertinent information that would have dissuaded them from investing $122,000 to open the first of their two galleries in 1999.

The interim award of $860,000, based on a decision that Kinkade's lawyer said he would seek to void, could quadruple when interest, legal fees and other costs are added, said the former dealers' Michigan lawyer, Norman Yatooma, whose firm is also handling the five pending arbitration claims.

Kinkade himself has been dismissed from the Hazlewood-Spinello claim, so obligation for payment of the award would fall to his solely owned company, and to Barnett, said Yatooma's associate, Joseph Ejbeh.

Though the panel did not single out the artist in its fraud finding, it wrote that he and other Media Arts Group executives had created "a certain religious environment designed to instill a special relationship of trust" with the couple, who have since divorced. The company, communicating through Kinkade and the others, often used terms such as "partner," "trust," "Christian" and "God" to convey a sense of "higher calling," the panel wrote.

Although Kinkade has said he does not market specifically to Christians, his limited-edition canvas prints bear the familiar Christian fish symbol and are inscribed with a biblical reference, "John 3:16." He also is fond of quoting Matthew 5:16 -- "Let your light shine before men" -- at times sounding more evangelist than artist.

"I love to talk about my faith," he said in a deposition. "I try to embrace people with love, unconditional love, like Christ did."

Former dealer Jim Cote said he was hard-pressed to feel the love. He has filed an arbitration claim, alleging among other things that he was a victim of Media Arts Group's pressure to saturate the market.

"In the beginning it was fine," said Cote, of Birmingham, Mich., who opened his first Signature gallery in 1996. "Sales were great because Thom at that point was very popular and there were limited outlets to buy his art."

But as time went on, Cote alleges, Media Arts Group pushed him to open more galleries, threatening to set up its own outlets in his territory. Cote eventually had three stores, all of which failed.

"This is not bread and milk," he said. "You can't have galleries on every corner."

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