A Florida pastor’s recent conviction for selling forged Damien Hirst spin paintings provided an absurdist twist to the tired art-scam narrative. Witness: a clergyman debunked by Science Ltd. (the name of Hirst’s studio).
Though much is briefly made of stories of thefts and forgeries — these are most reliably the art stories that enter the mainstream press — they are fairly banal legal processes, cases settled by a jury of peers that considers the facts and comes to a conclusion. But these human beings also become, for a period of a few hours, days, or weeks, endowed with a unique power and perspective: critics with the force of law.
Shortly after this most recent verdict came out, Hyperallergic got in touch with a juror on the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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Mostafa Heddaya: How did the jury initially approach the case during deliberations?
Juror: We deliberated for five hours over two days. Initially, when we started out, it was a 6-6 split between guilty and not-guilty. [Defendant and pastor] Kevin Sutherland, you felt sorry for him — initially he was a victim of a scam by Vincent Lopreto.
[Vincent Lopreto is the art forger behind the Hirsts, whose prior conviction led to him turning state's witness in the case against Sutherland. He connected with Sutherland over eBay after he responded to a listing of his there, and sold him the paintings in an offline transaction escrowed through Escrow.com.]
MH: Why did some jurors initially feel that Sutherland was not guilty?
J: The jurors who thought he was innocent believed Sutherland’s faith that the paintings weren’t in essence fake, because after Sotheby’s failed to authenticate the works he called the guy who originally sent him the paintings [Lopreto], who then offered to take the paintings back.
MH: His guilt or innocence came down to whether or not he believed the paintings to be real or fake, despite the evidence from Sotheby’s?
J: Yes. The issue was that after he found out that they were fake he tried to sell them to other people — for the $80–120,000 he believed they were worth. Sutherland received the second painting the same day he found out the first was a fake, and could have cancelled the transactions or accepted [Lopreto's] offer to return the paintings, but in the end he didn’t.
MH: Tell me a little bit about Vincent Lopreto’s testimony for the prosecution.
J: He said he had been doing this for a while, it cost him $50 to make them, and that after he was released [from a prior conviction for the same crime] he was trying to make them again.
MH: What was Sutherland’s basic defense strategy?
J: Sutherland’s defense made it see like he was under the impression they were real when he sent them to Sotheby’s, so the case hinged on the language used by the Sotheby’s representative. Nowhere in the emails or the testimony she [the Sotheby's representative] gave she said it was fake, she said it was sent for authentication and was “not accepted.”
It was amply evident that the person [Sutherland] understood it was fake, though … his lawyer used the defense that he still thought the works were real.
But there were two aspects to this: if he knew they were fake or imagined them to be real, the prosecution still needed to prove he was willing to permanently defraud the final purchaser.
MH: How did this case go from Sotheby’s and Hirst’s studio, Science Ltd., to the NYPD?
J: It’s unclear who exactly complained to the NYPD, how they got the name, but the NYPD did reach out to Sotheby’s and had them release the painting back to the owner. Sometimes, [in the case of inauthentic works] Sotheby’s would destroy it, or hold it, or give it to the police. In this case they were authorized to return the artwork to the original owner.
MH: How did the sting proceed from there?
J: An NYPD detective reached out to him and said: “I found out through some of my sources that you were selling this.” They then flew [Sutherland] up from Florida to complete the sale.
MH: Did any considerations of entrapment weigh into the defense?
J: The defense did not use entrapment as one of the things they could have argued. The jury believed that it could maybe have been a case but the defense didn’t think so.
MH: What were you told was Sutherland’s background? The widely-circulated fact about him was that he was a pastor, but did he have any prior dealings in art? What brought him to this line of business?
J: He was a private guy who used to buy and sell real estate because his job as a pastor didn’t pay him a salary until a year ago.
He also apparently dealt in art and had previously bought a counterfeit work from a local gallery in Florida and sued the gallery successfully over it.
He was introduced to Lopreto originally in 2012, when he was running a scam selling fake paintings on eBay — putting up sets of three Damien Hirst prints for sale, but then not selling it directly on eBay but rather contacting the bidders to sell it outside of eBay. Sutherland had purchased one set of these prints before the paintings.
MH: How did Hirst’s studio, Science Ltd., participate in the trial? Did they present any authentic works to the jury?
J: Science had two people testify — one to testified that they don’t issue the kind of authentication letter that accompanied the fake works and another to testify that the paintings had many flaws.
The wooden frame on which it was mounted was different, the stamps were different — a lot of them in random places.
My take was that anybody who looked at those works would not think they were a real work of art because [they] looked cheap and the canvas looked like something you would buy at Pearl Paint.
The painting also had something on it that certified that the work was made by someone in the studio, but even though most of the spin paintings are painted by assistants, they would not attribute the work to a member of the studio as this one did.
They didn’t bring any works in, but they showed us pictures of a real spin painting [and also noted that] this particular size [of the forged works] hadn’t been made since 1994, and they’d only made one before — it was easy to spot the fake without getting the actual work into their studio in England, Sotheby’s only sent pictures.
MH: How did this experience affect your personal view of Damien Hirst and art at large?
J: I don’t know much about art to begin with, but certainly not against it per se.
I didn’t know how the art world operated, I thought it would be a much more straightforward and clear cut methods to establish provenance and most of the work would be genuine and it would be easy to figure out. After this case I get the idea that there is a lot of fake art out there and the value of the art has more to do with provenance and how well it is proved rather than the piece itself.
My thoughts about Damien Hirst were not very high to begin with and they haven’t changed since then — modern art and all that, let’s just say I’m not a huge fan.
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