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Snow-Covered Lies: Thomas Kinkade Company Allegedly Sold Fake Art

Since "master of kitsch" Thomas Kinkade died, his company continues to sell new prints of snowy lawns and Disney characters. But a new lawsuit alleges they also advertised fraudulent paintings as Kinkade originals.
June 14, 2016, 5:35pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time in the San Fernando Valley, there was an art gallery called the Northridge Gallery. It was one of many franchise galleries that sold paintings and prints by Thomas Kinkade, whose art consisted of paintings of cottages, snowy landscapes, and Walt Disney characters.

Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, the artist's business, the Thomas Kinkade company, allowed 350 franchise art galleries to sell his artwork in a manner similar to the way McDonald's lets franchises sell their hamburgers. The practice made Kinkade an enemy to the art world and a modern-day Van Gogh to middle America, who bought his paintings, as well as an array of branded products ranging from air-fresheners to La-Z-Boy loungers. At his height, Kinkade estimated that one in 20 American households owned one of his paintings.

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Today, the Northridge Gallery is shuttered, a warehouse building down the road from a Smoke 'N Vape wholesale store and a Thai massage parlor. It's one of many closed Kinkade franchises. John McIntire—the owner of the former second biggest franchise, Denver's the Incredible Gallery—is now suing the company, claiming they have forced franchises out of business and purposefully marketed artwork created on computers by other people as Kinkade originals.

The saga started on April 6, 2012, when Kinkade died of a drug and valium overdose in his mansion in California. His death followed the release of one of Kinkade's most popular series, a Disney Art collection that consisted of 12 paintings of characters that he had permission to paint from the Walt Disney Company. His death sent prices soaring. "It seemed like every person in the world wanted to buy a Thomas Kinkade," McIntire says. "We were averaging a sale every 40 seconds."

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Kinkade had died on Good Friday, so corporate was closed till Tuesday. The week came, according to McIntire, and corporate refused to answer the franchises' calls. They ordered them to fax in their orders. Galleries were panicking because they were running out of images. During Kinkade's lifetime, galleries sold mostly two types of work: expensive "Limited Editions" that were original Kinkade paintings, and reproductions marketed as "Open Editions." In the 1990s, Kinkade signed each reproduction with ink mixed with his own blood and hair, so a DNA test could prove the painting's legitimacy. Art sellers always knew the original existed somewhere, but they worried the supply had dried up. Kinkade had only released the first nine of his Disney collection. They wondered if the final three would ever come.

Two or three weeks later, McIntire claims, the Thomas Kinkade Company's then-CEO, John Hasting, ordered a conference call with franchise owners. He refused to answer art sellers' questions, and it was essentially one-way call where Hasting announced the discovery of new Kinkade paintings. According to the lawsuit, corporate release a press statement saying, "All of Thom's artwork, writing, and photographs were stored in a vault in his private studio, known as IVYGATE."

Like Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh, Kinkade had left behind unseen artwork, and now the Thomas Kinkade Company was selling it under a line called "Vault." They were also offering a second new edition, called "Studio" pieces, which they claimed Kinkade's "apprentices" had completed after Kinkade started them. The final three Disney releases—The Jungle Book, Fantasia, and Lady and the Tramp—would be released as Studio releases.

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"Studio artists complete the [Studio] paintings," McIntire explains. "Vaults were originally seen as originals."

His suit revolves around the Vault and Studio works' legitimacy.

Kinkade signed each reproduction with ink mixed with his own blood and hair.

The first red flag went up in February 2013 at the annual franchise owners' conference at corporate headquarters in Morgan Hill, California. According to McIntire, executives took art sellers on a tour of their facilities. They walked them into a dark room, where McIntire alleges an executive told him, "This is where the magic happens." Four technicians worked at "very high-end" computers. The executives referred to them as Kinkade's "apprentices."

"We're color coating. We're adding colors to the images," McIntire claims the executive told him. "We take these concepts of Thomas Kinkade, and we make it come to life."

McIntire says he started questioning the Vault painting's legitimacy, because he knew Kinkade knew little about technology. According to the suit, Kinkade had McIntire run his Facebook. McIntire started asking executives about how real the paintings were, and he claims they responded, "Just sell the art." In October 2013, he claims, executives came to "schmooze" him. "What percentage of the Vault pieces are done by Thom?" he says he asked them. Their response, according to McIntire: a vault piece is based on any image that Kinkade had started during his lifetime, whether it was a sketch or a general idea. Considering Kinkade repeated motifs—cottages, white picket fences, mountains—this could theoretically mean any painting in his style.

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Broadly made a call to the Thomas Kinkade Company, but the number listed on their website went to a voice message that said their inbox was filled. They did not return Broadly's email requesting for comment. "Claims are baseless," says a representative from Next Point Capital, which bought the Thomas Kinkade Company in 2015. "Not worth covering. Other than that, no comment. We are doing exciting things in the art business. We will create legit events for you to write about."

Photo via Flickr user Joannie Dennis

The lawsuit alleges that "the only aspect of art is the highlighter on the computer generated prints." In this case, "highlighter" is the bright paint that customers pay a franchise employee to brighten certain areas of their purchase in order to make it original. McIntire says he never heard of the Thomas Kincade Company selling computer generated-images, but in a 2001 issue of the New Yorker, Susan Orlean describes computer art and the highlighting process taking place at a franchise inside a New Jersey mall.

"I am the most controversial artist in the world," Kinkade told Orlean.

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He was sort of right. On the one hand, this process isn't different from the practices of Jeff Koons. A former investment banker, Koons designs his artwork, and then his 150 studio employees build at least ten paintings and ten sculptures a year. The difference, of course, is that Koons sells to rich art collectors and exclusive galleries, whereas Kinkade produced hundreds of paintings, prints, and branded items that were sold in malls. Although the art world revolves around over-priced art, University of Kentucky art historian Anna Brzyski believes the art world would never accept Kinkade because he blatantly embraced commerce. In her essay "Art Ethics," she describes it a "violation against the ethical injunction against crass, unmediated commerce."

"In short, he will never be identified as a serious contemporary artist within the art system," she writes.

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Kinkade's brother, Patrick, has cited this as the root of his brother's business and personal shortcomings. He told Mercury News that the art world's dismissal contributed to his brother's turbulent final few years. At least ten franchises have sued the Thomas Kinkade Company. In 2010, the company filed for bankruptcy after a judge decided they had to pay two galleries $860,000. According to the Los Angeles Times, the franchises alleged that the company had allowed them to sink so that stock prices would plunge from a high of $25 to a low of $3, and Kinkade could buy back the company at a bargain basement price.

Kinkade denied all the accusations, but the suits soiled his reputation and made his alcoholism public information. During testimony, former Thomas Kinkade Company vice president Terry Sheppard described Kinkade's habit of peeing in public as an act of "ritual territory marking." He recalled Kinkade pissing on a Winnie the Pooh statue and screaming, "This one's for you, Walt!" In another interview, someone alleged that Kinkade had screamed, "Codpiece!" at either Siegfried or Roy for wearing a "codpiece" during their Las Vegas magic show.

"Book of Ecclesiastes says enjoy yourself, have a glass of wine, for this is God's will for you," Kinkade said in response to the allegations. "It's never consistent with God's will that we behave in a sinful way; however, God also loves us and accepts us and understands that at times we have our failings."

It depends on how you define fake.

Since Kinkade died in 2012, more lawsuits have emerged. His girlfriend, Amy Pinto, presented two hand-written wills, which she claimed Kinkade wrote himself promising he would give her his mansion and $10 million. His ex-wife, Nanette Kinkade, claimed they were frauds. Pinto sued her, and Nanette filed a restraining order against her lover's ex-wife. The women settled out of court, and the settlement remains private.

In 2015, private equity group Next Point Capital's Art Brand Studios bought the Thomas Kinkade Company. McIntire's suit alleges that Next Point Capital wanted to put the franchises out of business. Last year, the company issued a Minimum Authorized Pricing Policy, forcing franchisees to sell work for at least a certain price. Yet on their website and Amazon, McIntire alleges, the Thomas Kinkade Company sells products for a price point below the Minimum Authorized Pricing Policy. In January 2016, the company purchased the popular New York and New Jersey gallery.

"They basically stated, 'We're not going to allow you to sell our products anymore,'" McIntire says.

His suit alleges that Next Point Capital wants to eliminate the franchises to cut out the middleman. At the heart of the lawsuit is an accusation that the Thomas Kinkade Company hasn't been transparent about their business relationships to franchises or the roots of their products. It's a question that has revolved around Kinkade ever since he became famous for hawking paintings of snow-covered cottages in the mid-1990s. Four years after his death, McIntire still isn't able to even describe the backstory of each Vault and Studio painting.

"I don't know fake is the right word," he says. "It depends on how you define fake."