A Christian pastor was convicted Tuesday of second-degree attempted grand larceny for trying to sell fake paintings to an undercover cop.
Pastor Kevin Sutherland, 46, of the nondenominational Mosaic Miami Church in Miami, Fla., will be sentenced on May 19 and could spend up to seven years in prison, the New York Times reported.
A jury found Sutherland guilty of trying to sell five of British artist Damien Hirst's paintings, though it's unclear whether he knew they were truly forgeries at the time.
This undated photo provided by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office shows the front and back of a counterfeit Damien Hirst spin painting. (AP Photo/Manhattan District Attorney's Office)
Prosecutors alleged that Sutherland was aware that at least one of the paintings was a possible fake when an undercover officer bought it in February 2013, but the defense claimed that the preacher simply wasn't well versed enough in the art world to know for sure.
The painting in question had been rejected by Sotheby's auction house just one week prior to the sale to the undercover cop; the auction house called the the artwork inauthentic, according to the Times.
"He falsely misrepresents to make the paintings seem genuine and sought after instead of in dispute," Assistant District Attorney Rachel Hochhauser said during closing arguments Monday, the New York Post reported.
Initially Sotheby's said that the painting could fetch up to $100,000, but after dealers called Hirst's London studio, they were told that the painting was "not approved" (Hirst's studio apparently subsequently contacted authorities in New York out of concern).
The pastor maintains that Meghan McDonald, a specialist at Sotheby's, was not clear in how she conveyed this information, though, and that he had no idea the painting in question was a forgery. But in testifying, McDonald said that she urged the pastor to call the studio to double check on its status.
The preacher said he didn't approach the studio, because the authentication process was expensive and he wasn't necessarily led to believe that the painting was a forgery.
The Times reported that just two days before Sotheby's called off the sale, Michael Dorto, an undercover detective, emailed Sutherland to ask if he had any Hirst paintings for sale.
After the pastor learned that the auction house wouldn't sell the painting, he ended up offering a bundle deal to Dorto, which included two spin paintings and three prints for $185,000 -- all of which were forgeries.
At issue is the notion that the pastor didn't tell Dorto about Sotheby's concerns over one of the paintings. When the pastor was asked directly if there were any issues with authenticating the paintings, he said, "Everything’s good. I have no issues that I know of."
See Sutherland's most recent sermon at Mosaic below:
Prosecutors believe it was necessary to hold Sutherland accountable for allegedly knowingly selling the faux painting, though the preacher has maintained his innocence.
"New York’s culture and identity is significantly shaped by artists, who are an important part of our city’s economy," said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in a statement. "Because the art industry is largely unregulated, it is particularly important to hold accountable those who fraudulently deal artwork and to preserve the integrity of this market."
The pastor apparently got into the art industry back in 2010 when he first purchased paintings from Vincent Lopreto, a forger who he thought was a California lawyer named Byron Grace; Lopreto reportedly assisted authorities in their case against Sutherland as part of a plea deal.
Sutherland is currently out on $100,000 bail and his legal team might appeal.
"We of course disagree with the verdict and we are going to look into all of our options as far as an appeal," the pastor's attorney, Sam Talkin, said after the verdict, according to the New York Daily News.
(H/T: New York Times)