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Pastor Kevin Sutherland, Photo: Steven Hirsch-New York Post

The church has endured its own share of scandals and shames in recent years. But Kiddygate, Gaygate, Cokegate and Fithy-Lucregate are recently overshadowed by the looming spector of … Forgerygate.

Pastor Kevin Sutherland of Miami’s Mosaic Church began to dabble in the art-resale market in 2010, never imagining how badly and how far this would take him. There have been several high-profile court cases against art resellers lately, but this may be the most publicized, and probably only because of Sunderland’s church connection.

Trading modest “cowboy art” on eBay, his life took an unfortunate turn when he encountered a man using the name Byron Grace. Grace offered Sutherland a set of dot prints purportedly by Damien Hirst, one of the world’s most successful and wealthy living artists.

In real life Bryon Grace was Vincent Lopreto from Laguna Beach, Calif. He had a history of selling dozens of phony Hirsts on eBay and also presented his dupes with quite convincing signatures and counterfeit letters of authenticity to seal the deal.

Lopreto was so skilled at his chicanery that he went undetected for quite a time, deceiving art buyers and collectors until he was eventually caught. But the fact that Pastor Sunderland was clearly deceived hasn’t kept him from the threat of prison and the humiliating gaze of the public eye.

Sutherland bought another five “Hirsts” from Lopreto in 2010 – three dot prints and two of his popular “spin” paintings. Hirst has sold copious quantities of both in recent years, even mass manufacturing to an extent, giving Sunderland no reason to suspect his supplier at all.

All this came to a crashing end when Sutherland sent a “Hirst” spin painting to New York Sotheby’s in December 2012 for possible auction. Originally they thought it may net as much as $100,000, but changed their minds after some contact with Hirst’s studio in Britain, which informed Sotheby’s it was a counterfeit.

Here communication seems to have broken down. Sotheby’s informed Sutherland they wouldn’t sell the piece but apparently failed to mention it was a forgery. That information went straight to law enforcement, though. New Yorkers take their art business seriously enough to have a dedicated district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., investigate and prosecute art fraud cases.

Spin paintings by Damien Hirst, courtesy New York DA Office

Sutherland was only informed that there was a “problem” with the work, and the painting had not been “approved” by Hirst’s London studios, Science Ltd.

Sotheby’s advised him to contact them for authentication himself, which he claimed was too spendy for him. Sutherland would live to regret not taking their advice.

Hot in the middle of the case that originally began against the forger Lopreto, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office sent an undercover buyer to contact Sutherland, specifically inquiring if he had any “Hirsts.” They were in a rush, moving in two days before Sotheby’s even refused the sale according to some witnesses. Sunderland agreed to sell the lot for $185,000 and to meet the detective who posed as a New York art dealer.

The New York Times’ reporting on this event, however, has a slightly different take, claiming that Sutherland “contacted the detective” himself and on the same day that Sotheby’s declined his piece. I couldn’t obtain the trial transcript to find which is correct.

Phone conversations recorded by police reveal Sunderland claimed “everything’s good” and that there were “no issues” with the authenticity of the works as far as he knew. These few words and acceptance of some cash landed Sunderland an arrest warrant on Feb. 7, 2013.

Most damning for the pastor was the sin of omission the DA insisted he had committed by failing to mention Sotheby’s return of the one piece. At some point Hirst studios deemed the whole lot as forgeries, but it appears this information wasn’t conveyed to Pastor Sutherland before his arrest.

His lawyers contend that Sutherland was not a sophisticated art buyer and had no way to guess the pieces were fakes – particularly with such excellently produced authentication papers attached.

Actual forgers Lopreto and his gallery partner Ronald Bell were arrested on a New York warrant in October 2013, nine months after Sutherland for some reason. Lopreto’s trial slipped smoothly along as he pled guilty to identity theft and fraud last January and cooperated with the DA against Sutherland in exchange for lighter sentences. Due to his “extraordinary cooperation” they even dropped the identity theft charge, so things are looking up for him.

This was the second conviction for Lopreto specifically for faking Hirsts. It must be extremely lucrative for him considering he has already served time for the first conviction. I find it odd that Lopreto is favored in this way and was asked to help prosecute one of the many buyers he deceived. Is this New York justice?

Art forgers Vincent Lopreto and Ronald Bell, Photo: ABC

On April 8, 2014, Sutherland was convicted by a jury in Manhattan’s State Supreme Court of attempted grand larceny in the second degree. He could serve up to seven years in prison or only receive probation. Judge Bonnie Wittner will be making that decision on May 19, 2014.

Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. speaks as a crusader for New York’s artists, and there are a considerable number. Noting that the art market has few rules or laws, Vance insisted they must “hold accountable those who fraudulently deal artwork and to preserve the integrity of this market.”

New York real estate broker and art dealer Richard Silver, another victim of Lopreto, fiddled with improving appraisals himself and resold fake Hirst prints knowing full well what he was doing. Silver pled guilty to misdemeanor forgery charges and was sentenced to only 60 days in the slammer.

But crimes and punishments are slapdash and arbitrary. When New York’s Metropolitan Fine Arts and Antiques staff lied, aggressively pursued and outright scammed a retired Ohio woman out of more than $1 million dollars in 2013, they faced only a civil suit.

And art dealer Glafira Rosales, whose epic adventures in swindledom reach into more millions than anyone knows, has yet to receive an actual sentence because she is also “cooperating” with authorities.

Now Sutherland waits for sentencing, and his attorney Sam Talkin hopes to appeal the conviction if possible. Meanwhile his misadventures are a yellow caution light for the uninitiated who may consider the unexpectedly vicious art business in the future.

Pastor Sutherland still preaches at his small Miami church and delivered a traditional Easter sermon last week, “He is Risen,” with no reference to his personal woes or sign of fear in his sermon.

Sources: Independent.ie / Artnet.com / ArtDaily.com / (CBSNewYork/AP) / CBS Radio Inc. / New York Times.

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