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Gallery Owner Didn’t Cheat Nuns

SANTA FE, N.M. — Santa Fe gallery owner Mark Zaplin says accusations by a group of New York nuns that he conned them in an art deal put him “through a few years of real hell.”

But a jury verdict on Monday provided Zaplin with a heavenly result, including monetary damages, according to his attorney.

Not only were the nuns’ claims rejected, the Albany, N.Y., jury also awarded Zaplin and appraiser Mark LaSalle – accused as a co-conspirator in a lawsuit by the Daughters of Mary Mother of Our Savior – compensatory damages totaling $575,000, said lawyer Tom Chase by telephone from New York.

The nuns’ order is affiliated with Bishop Clarence Kelly and the breakaway conservative Catholic group Society of St. Pius V.

The nuns claimed in a 2009 lawsuit that they were swindled when they sold a painting to him for $450,000 and he ended up selling it for more than $2 million. At the time, the idea of two art world insiders cheating a group of nuns produced headlines around the country, including on the front page of the New York Post.

But according to Chase, the jury on Monday found that Zaplin and LaSalle had been defamed by the nuns’ founding bishop, Kelly, and by an art dealer who had been portrayed as a whistleblower in the order’s lawsuit.

And the jury will reconvene Jan. 24 to assess punitive damages, said Chase, meaning Zaplin and LaSalle likely will be awarded more money.

“This is complete, total, grand-slam vindication,” Zaplin said Tuesday.

Bruce Goldstone of New York, lawyer for the nuns, did not return a phone call from the Journal last month or one placed to his office Tuesday.

“I don’t care about the money,” Zaplin said. “I just want to put this behind me.”

He also said: “I’m an art dealer and my reputation is everything.’

The dispute was spurred by Zaplin’s purchase of “Notre Dame des Anges” (“Our Lady of the Angels”), a 1889 work by French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

It was last shown publicly in this country at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 and had been given to the nuns for their convent in upstate New York in 2002.

LaSalle, an Albany-area appraiser accused by the nuns of hatching a scheme to defraud them, became involved when they asked him to value the painting. According to the nuns’ lawsuit, the painting was restored on his recommendation and after that, LaSalle estimated its market value at $350,000 to $450,000.

LaSalle told Zaplin about the painting. He first offered $350,000 for the painting but eventually bought it for $450,000. Zaplin subsequently sold the Bouguereau for about $2.15 million.

The nuns’ suit was supported by an affidavit from art dealer Paul Dumont. Dumont quoted LaSalle as saying “we could ‘screw’ the sisters and make a handsome profit.”

Dumont also said in the sworn statement that Sotheby’s had valued the work at between $1.5 million and $1.8 million, an amount unknown to the convent when the nuns agreed to sell it for $450,000. Dumont said in the statement that he had known both LaSalle and Zaplin for many years and that the “main portion of the profit” was to be split between the two.

But Zaplin and LaSalle denied the allegations and soon filed their own suit, alleging that Dumont conspired to extort money from them after Zaplin sold the painting and made a big profit. Dumont also was accused of defamation, as was Bishop Kelly, for comments he made to news reporters.

The two lawsuits in New York state court were combined for consideration during a trial that lasted about six weeks before Monday’s jury decisions.

Chase, Zaplin’s New York attorney, said by phone Tuesday that the six-member jury denied all the claims against Zaplin and LaSalle and found that the bishop and Dumont had defamed Zaplin and LaSalle. Chapman said Bishop Kelly had compared LaSalle to a gangster in a television interview.

The jury gave LaSalle two $250,000 damage awards – one from Bishop Kelly and his St. Pius Chapel Inc., also known as the Society of St. Pius V., and the second from Dumont. Zaplin was awarded $75,000 from Dumont.

The jury also answered “yes” when asked whether Zaplin and LaSalle were entitled to punitive damages, according to Chapman. Those damages will be considered at the next hearing later this month.

Zaplin said the jury’s decision to consider punitive damages “sends a real loud statement” about the case.

He has always said all he did in the deal for the Bouguereau was to buy low and sell high. On Tuesday, he said he offered what he believed was a fair price for the painting considering its condition and got “very, very lucky” when he sold it for more than $2 million.

“I put a $40,000 frame on the picture, and it looked like it came out of the Louvre,” he said. He also got the painting placed with a Dallas museum, which enhanced its cachet. A Dallas dealer found a potential buyer. Zaplin said he went for the “moon” with his starting price, and got it. “It was the craziest deal,” he said.

“I’m not denying I made a lot of money,” he said. “When you spend 40 years doing something, once in a while you get lucky.”

He said he never did anything wrong and the sisters had plenty of time to back out of the deal, including when they held his cashier’s check for three months before finally cashing it after he set a deadline.

“In America, a seller can’t rely on a buyer for due diligence,” Zaplin said.