This image of Michael Jackson is at the center of a dispute between David… (David LaChapelle )
It is a dispute pitting a man who takes pictures of famous people against one who makes their faces camera-ready.
Arnold Klein, the Beverly Hills doctor touted as "dermatologist to the stars," has accused David LaChapelle, famed for surrealist portraits of celebrities, of the theft of a piece of his own art. The photographer admitted reclaiming his work — a depiction of Michael Jackson as Jesus Christ — but insisted he did nothing wrong.
The quarrel between two auxiliary players in the celebrity world has gone on for more than a year, but it only became public recently when the Los Angeles County district attorney's office opted not to bring criminal charges against LaChapelle.
In a one-page document declining to prosecute the matter, a deputy district attorney wrote that there was no proof of Klein's allegations of grand theft or LaChapelle's denial of them.
"Neither victim nor suspect can be corroborated. There is no physical evidence," the prosecutor, Jennifer Turkat, wrote last month.
Klein declined to comment and a representative for LaChapelle said he was out of the country and unavailable.
The piece in question was part of a collection called "American Jesus" that LaChapelle showed in galleries around the world after Jackson's death. Models were used to create the photograph, based on a Pieta, the
traditional scene of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus.
The work has been valued at $48,000, according to the prosecutor.
Jackson was a longtime client and friend of Klein, but after the singer's 2009 death, authorities began scrutinizing the care and prescription drugs he provided to the singer.
It was only one of a host of problems for Klein. He filed for bankruptcy and a 2010 fire damaged his beloved Windsor Square mansion, where part of his $7-million art collection was held. Among the items affected was the LaChapelle piece, which Klein described to police as a gift from the artist.
Klein sent the piece back to the photographer to repair and LaChapelle refused to return it, according to a prosecutor's summary of the case.
When questioned by the LAPD's art theft detail, the photographer said the piece wasn't a gift, but compensation for dermatological services that Klein had failed to provide him.
The photographer told police that Klein could have the artwork back "when he paid for it," according to the case summary.
Given the competing accounts of ownership, the prosecutor wrote, "the matter cannot be proven BRD" — beyond a reasonable doubt.
The photograph remains in the police evidence vault.
"We don't know what's happening with the piece," said Patrick Toolan, a representative for LaChapelle.
Art theft Det. Don Hrycyk declined to explain why the police still have the artwork, saying that he didn't want to aid or abet additional media attention for "these personalities."
"I'm glad to get rid of it," he said of the case.