The Weirdest Art Case Ever, Part Deux: 5 New Details About the Todd White/Margaret Howell SpongeBob Ninja Art Feud
It's back! We know readers have been dying to know what's going on in the strange legal battle between Todd White — the former SpongeBob SquarePants character designer, Ren & Stimpy animator, and sometimes fine artist — and his 62-year-old Orange County dealer, Margaret Howell. This week, venerated cultural rag Vanity Fair dug into the case, publishing a long exposé getting to the heart of what really happened on that August 2011 evening when Howell accuses White of hiring three "martial arts experts" to attack her and steal $1 million in inventory from the gallery she owns, Gallery HB. White, on the other hand, maintains that the "ninja attack" incident was really nothing more sinister than a sit-down with Howell that ended in a tearful confession that she had printed extra copies of his glicées and forged edition numbers, as well as his signature.
The truth is murky. Who, finally, to believe in this crazy he said/she said case at the weird outer fringes of the art world? It's hard to say — but it is fairly easy to pick out plenty of zany details. Here, ARTINFO breaks out the five craziest new tidbits uncovered by VF's David Kushner — who, by the way, refers obliquely to our previous coverage when he says "one blogger" called the original incident the "weirdest art case ever" (get caught up here and here if you need a primer on the story's background):
"A SPARTACUS FIGURE"?
The VF story gives new insight into the characters at the center of this story, who take on almost mythical dimensions. White originally broke into the fine art realm, we are told, because of his undeniable "swagger." Cleveland-based gallerist Kevin O'Donnell, who also represents White, goes so far as to say, "he’s a genuine charismatic character, not unlike Warhol." His U.K. publisher, Rod Lacey, calls him "John Lennon with a paintbrush." Later in the story, Lacey goes on to claim that White's "been taken on as almost a Spartacus figure for the art world," referring to his attempt to start a guild to help his fellow artists navigate the gallery business (Wait — what?) However, after the lawsuit ordeal, White has reportedly been so depressed he couldn't even bring himself to follow his normal routine: painting late into the night while listening to Howard Stern.
THE WEDDING CRASHER
Howell, for her part, is presented as a pretty slick character. White told VF that she once sold artwork to a bride in the bathroom before her wedding — the benefit of having a gallery in a hotel, ARTINFO presumes. As for her crimes against the SpongeBob artist, in addition to selling a forged print to a private investigator White hired, she also admitted to using a substance called "Goo Be Gone" to remove markings from one of his prints, relabeling it so as to make it seem more rare and expensive.
ENTER SYLVESTER STALLONE...
White, we are told, is apparently the "poster boy" for glicée prints — digital photos printed to look like they have been painted. He's achieved quite a following, scoring deals with Coca-Cola and the Emmys, and his work is now sold at "major retail operations like Bed Bath & Beyond." As for collectors, Sylvester Stallone owns one of White's prints, for which he supposedly paid $280,000 (there's a new one for ARTINFO to list of celebrity collectors)!
A NEW FOE
We also learn that White has at least one nemesis besides his former dealer: A rival L.A. artist, Clifford Bailey, has accused White of making work that is just a little bit too similar to his own. And after the Howell/White martial arts scandal went down, Howell did what any smart dealer would do: She picked up the next best thing. Bailey's works now adorn the walls of Gallery HB.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
According to White, the stunt he had his friends pull — which was either ninja attack or just a very forceful business meeting, depending on whom you believe — was a result of not wanting to "contaminate his hard-earned market" by reporting Howell's fraud to the police. It's not clear that his power play worked, though. Today, ARTINFO found several Web sites selling his prints for around $1,000, a far cry from the six figures that Sly Stallone forked out for a White original (full disclosure: we have no idea if they are genuine or not, since it's the Internet).
But, at the end of the day, it all might be water under the bridge. Vanity Fair reports that the parties recently reached a confidential out-of-court settlement.