Gallerist sues “SpongeBob” artist over alleged heist
While cartoonist claims that dealer was operating a massive fraud
By Leigh Kamping-Carder. Web only
Published online: 17 August 2011
LOS ANGELES. A California gallery owner has accused artist Todd White, a former designer on the “SpongeBob SquarePants” cartoon series, of hiring thugs to hold her hostage and steal $1.5m worth of art. White has shot back with his own claims of a massive forgery operation.
Margaret Howell, founder of The Gallery HB in Huntington Beach, sued White and several others in California state court on 12 August, seeking a total of $7.5m as compensation for what she said was extreme emotional trauma and damage to her business.
Howell, 62, claims that White, with whom she has worked for the past eight years, had enlisted his studio manager, attorney and two unidentified martial arts experts to execute “a malicious and brutal assault and robbery” on 2 August in order to sell his work directly to collectors.
“We look forward to prevailing at trial and showing the world just what kind of a person Mr White and his henchmen really are,” said Howell’s attorney, Jonathan M. Jenkins.
According to White, however, the men met with Howell to resolve a dispute over a widespread fraud they say they uncovered at the gallery. After a two-and-a-half month investigation, White determined that Howell had forged his signature on at least four pieces, and copied dozens of works from other artists, said Bryce Eddy, managing director of the artist’s studio and one of the alleged thugs.
“Obviously, the allegations she’s thrown out are just totally absurd,” he said. “For her to say what she said is so outrageous, I mean it's amazing.”
Along with his work on SpongeBob, White has created designs for The Coca-Cola Co and acted as the official artist for the 2007 Grammy Awards. The Gallery HB, located in a Hyatt Regency resort hotel, also sells works by the psychedelic artist Peter Max and Dean Torrence, one-half of the surfer band Jan and Dean.
In Howell’s version of the night of 2 August, the four men muscled their way into the gallery, threatened her with physical harm, and held her captive in her office. They took an estimated $1m worth of White’s art, then made her hand over additional paintings, worth another several hundred thousand dollars, from her home. Howell has hotel surveillance footage of “muscular men” dragging art from the gallery until 3:30am, Jenkins said.
They also pressured Howell to sign various documents, including one that supposedly told the Hyatt she would vacate the premises and turn over the operation to White, the suit claims. “She doesn’t even know what she signed, quite frankly,” Jenkins said. Since then, White has contacted collectors and offered to sell his works directly to them, he said.
But as far as White is concerned, the studio contacted the Hyatt and others to alert them to the alleged forgeries and “make them whole,” Eddy said. The men came to the studio to reach a confidential settlement that would have Howell give up the art in exchange for White dropping his fraud and copyright infringement claims, according to Eddy.
Howell surrendered the pieces willingly and even recorded a confession, he claimed. “At the end of the day, she voluntarily signed an agreement with the idea that she could get out from underneath this thing,” he said.
White first noticed something was amiss when Howell accidentally brought one of the alleged fakes to his studio, according to Eddy.
But Jenkins denied that Howell had ever copied White’s work, and wondered why the artist did not go to authorities with the information. “Why didn’t they do something other than show up in force in the middle of the night and assault, harass, threaten and emotionally demolish a 62-year-old woman there all by herself?” he said.
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