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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

Cote said his net worth of more than $3 million had been erased. Gone are his marriage, his house and most of his possessions. He doesn't blame his divorce entirely on his galleries' failure, he said, but "it certainly didn't help."

He shut his last store in December and has filed for bankruptcy protection.

"At this point, I've got a dog and an apartment, and that's it," Cote said. "This is not where I thought I'd be at 56."

Kinkade's lawyers deny Cote's allegations.

As Hazlewood, Spinello, Cote and other Signature gallery owners were faltering, the company's stock plummeted from a high of nearly $25 a share to less than $3. Former dealers allege that Kinkade allowed them to sink in order to drive down the stock price, so he could buy back the company at a bargain basement price -- a charge the artist and his lawyer said was absurd.

"There was no conspiracy to shoot ourselves in the foot," Kinkade testified in the arbitration case that was just decided. "Nobody wanted to hurt the dealers."

Kinkade, who co-founded the company as Lightpost Publishing in 1989 and took it public in 1994, bought it back in 2004 for $4 a share. Investors who had put their faith and their fortunes in the Painter of Light -- a moniker he trademarked -- were left holding a mostly empty bag.

"I took a bloodbath, an absolute bloodbath," said De la Carriere, the Los Angeles art dealer, who said she invested her inheritance in Media Arts Group stock at more than $20 a share.

But even as the company ran aground, Kinkade and others in top positions prospered, according to testimony.

From 1997 through May 2005, Kinkade earned $53 million for his work, the company's assistant controller testified. That figure includes $11.8 million from top-of-the-line "studio proofs," small-edition canvas prints that Kinkade personally retouched, or "highlighted"-- with as much as 65% of the profit going to him.

Kinkade wasn't the only one who got rich.

Barnett, then head of retail sales and now an executive vice president, also made millions as the Signature galleries were failing. Unbeknownst to the dealers, he reaped commissions on all art sold to them at wholesale, averaging more than $2 million a year for 1999, 2000 and 2001, according to testimony.

The arbitration panel found that the company and Barnett, who ran a training program for prospective gallery owners known as Thomas Kinkade University, "painted an unrealistic and misleading picture of the prospects for success" and never warned potential investors of the inherent risks.

"We were told success story after success story, and of course the 'Thom story' and his Christian views and the way he runs his life," Spinello told the arbitration panel in late 2004.

Just as it has revealed the inner workings of Kinkade's business, the dealer litigation also has delved into his personal conduct, which witnesses testified was often at odds with the God-fearing image he projected.

In testimony and interviews with The Times, Sheppard and other former employees said they often went with Kinkade to strip clubs and bars, where he frequently became intoxicated and out of control.

John Dandois, Media Arts Group's senior director of retail operations from 1995 to 1999, testified in a hearing that the artist was a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde character, whose behavior worsened as the alcohol flowed.

"Thom would be fine, he would be drinking, and then all of a sudden, you couldn't tell where the boundary was," he said. "And then he became very incoherent, and he would start cussing and doing a lot of weird stuff."

Dandois, who left the company to become chief executive of a group of galleries owned by Kinkade's brother, Patrick, recounted that about six years ago the artist was so intoxicated during a performance by Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas that people seated nearby moved away from him.

"I think it was Roy or Siegfried or whatever had a codpiece in his leotards," Dandois testified. "And so when the show started, Thom just started yelling, 'Codpiece, codpiece,' and had to be quieted by his mother and Nanette."

At other times, Kinkade could be downright nasty, Dandois testified, recalling an incident in which Dandois' wife tried to help the allegedly inebriated artist to his feet in a bar.

"He had been falling down, and he fell off the stool, and he was laying on the ground and just looked up at her and flipped her the bird and told her, you know, just to 'F you' several times," Dandois testified.

In an interview, Sheppard, who often accompanied Kinkade on the road, recounted a trip to Orange County in the late 1990s for the artist's appearance on the "Hour of Power" television show at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. On the eve of the broadcast, Sheppard said, he and Kinkade returned to the Disneyland Hotel after a night of heavy drinking. As they walked to their rooms, according to Sheppard and another person who was there, Kinkade veered toward a nearby figure of a Disney character.

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