The Weirdest Art Case Ever?: Breaking Down the He-Said-She-Said SpongeBob Ninja Gallery Attack Saga

Courtesy of Art Of White
Artist Todd White is suing gallery owner Margaret Howell for selling forgeries

By Shane Ferro

Published: September 1, 2011

White's brainchild, "SpongeBob SquarePants"
hite — the man behind the design of SpongeBob SquarePants — is one of the more unusual and outright incredible art cases in memory. A lot of accusations have been flying around in recent days, some of which involve, yes, ninjas. Howell filed a suit in California court in mid-August, alleging assault and art theft, among other things. Now, White has countersued in federal court, accusing Howell of copyright infringement and widespread fraud. After obtaining both legal complaints, ARTINFO offers up a guide to the bizarre ins and outs of the accusations on both sides of this strange affair:

TODD WHITE — White worked on the television show Ren & Stimpy before becoming the head artist for Nickelodeon's cultural phenomenon "SpongeBob SquarePants." He's not just some wimpy comic-book guy, either: A fellow cartoonist, JohnK, claims on his blog that White is a black belt in Machado Jui Jitsu, once using his martial arts knowledge to help illustrate a cartoon fight scene. Several years ago, White made the jump to fine art. His triumphs, as listed on his own Web site, include being chosen as the official artist of the 2007 Grammy Awards, a deal with Coca-Cola to have his work seen on limited-edition Coke products, and being commissioned in the U.K. to paint a memorial portrait of Princess Diana. White's self-description in his own complaint also paints himself as a "respected philanthropist."
MARGARET HOWELL — The 62-year-old Howell is the owner of Gallery HB, located inside the Hyatt Regency hotel in Huntington Beach, California. She has owned and operated the gallery for eight years, according to her complaint. She also has a private art consulting firm, Fine Art Consulting Services, Inc., which is named as a plaintiff in her suit, and a defendant in White's. She claims to have sold White's art on a contingency basis, with the artist receiving a portion of the sale price, but also says she frequently "purchased White's art outright, and then resold it to customers at a markup." According to Howell's complaint, she was the first to show his work in a gallery setting. "Ms. Howell's efforts to market and publicize White's work... were pivotal to the artist's subsequent financial success and critical acclaim," writes her lawyer, Jonathan M. Jenkins.

— Davidson is named in Howell's suit as a defendant, having allegedly been one of the men who went to the gallery to intimidate her. But he's not just some muscleman: Howell's suit claims that Davidson is also White's attorney (Paul Berra is representing White in the current suit), though he is "presently on three years of post-suspension disciplinary probation with the State Bar of California," after he mishandled a medical malpractice case, deposited a payment from a client in his personal account rather than a client trust account, then bounced a check to refund the client from said client trust account. (His license to practice law has been reactivated as of November 19, 2010.)
BRYCE EDDY — "White's agent and martial arts sparring partner," according to Howell's complaint, and another one of the alleged assailants. This is, however, only "on information and belief."
"HIRED MUSCLES" — "Martial arts experts" allegedly hired by White to attack Howell, according to her complaint. The identities of the men remain unknown, but the complaint alludes to hotel security footage from the gallery that may yet be able to help uncover their identities.
PETER M. "CLYDE" LAVOIE — A former employee of Gallery HB, who Howell accuses of having served as an inside man at the gallery, and became an accomplice of White.
ACCORDING TO HOWELL'S COMPLAINT: Several months ago, Todd White held an "opening gala" at his personal studio and sold art directly to customers. He found that he preferred the "direct sales business model" over selling through a gallery, and wanted to get rid of the middlewoman, that is, Howell. Then, the complaint alleges, White recruited Peter Lavoie, who worked at the gallery, to be his inside man. Weeks before the art heist of August 2-3, Lavoie quit his gallery job. Howell's complaint says that "on information and belief, Lavoie is now employed by White."
On August 2, Howell was "at the hospital attending to the bedside of her ailing mother." Four men hired by White showed up at her gallery, telling her "that they represented the Brazilian consulate and were interested in purchasing White's art." However, after she was lured to the gallery, the "martial arts experts" (referred to by the complaint as "hired muscle" and in the OC Weekly as "ninjas") "forcibly shut down the gallery, physically assaulted Ms. Howell, emotionally traumatized her, and... imprisoned her in her office for long hours by force."
The men then allegedly proceeded to steal over $1 million worth of art from her gallery, took her confidential customer lists, forced her to sign documents handing over the lease on the gallery to White, and "forced Ms. Howell to take them back to her home, where they removed and stole this additional artwork belonging to the Gallery and FACS [her consulting company]."
The next day, Howell's complaint goes on to say, "White or one of his associates" faxed the documents Howell was forced to sign and requested that the lease be transferred to White, noting that she would be "vacating the premises on or about August 16, 2011." Subsequently, the defendants have been using the stolen customer list to try to sell White's paintings directly to Howell's customers, which has resulted in several customer complaints to Howell, according to the legal document she filed.

White's suit, for its part, focuses on another issue entirely, claiming that Howell has been copying, embellishing, and signing his artworks without permission — then selling them for a hefty profit. This scam, he claims, "caused millions of dollars of damage to him and his company." This information was established, in fact, "based upon Howell's own tearful admissions, the testimony of her top salesman, and the support of a number of defrauded customers."
White's complaint doesn't dwell on the evening of the alleged ninja assault, but it does detail the fact that the artist's "representatives confronted Howell at her gallery with undeniable evidence establishing her guilt. Realizing that she had been caught red-handed, Howell openly and readily admitted that she has copied several of White's paintings... because she was dealing with financial problems and was lured by 'greed' and the 'ease' of it all."
White's complaint goes on to state that Howell, despite claiming she signed documents under duress, "spent nearly 45 minutes reviewing... asking questions about... and making specific changes to" the documents she signed on the night of August 2. And finally, White demands that he be granted full access to her accounting books, "to figure out the full extent of Defendants' wrongful conduct."
SHE IS ASKING FOR: At least $7.5 million plus punitive damages for assault, battery, robbery, kidnapping, and emotional trauma.

At least $5 million plus punitive damages for copyright infringement and fraud.

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