Correction appended.

"Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade is being accused of hoodwinking investors and leaving them in the dark. While arbiters awarded two former Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery owners $860,000 this year, other former dealers have claims pending that accuse Kinkade of using his Christian faith to defraud them.

"I take no pleasure in being the one to cast the first stone," said Norman Yatooma, the attorney representing 25 former dealers from seven states. "But fraud is a terrible thing. It is horrifying when it is done in the name of God. The bottom line is Kinkade has used God for profit."

Now the FBI is apparently investigating. Though the bureau does not confirm or deny its investigations, Yatooma told CT that agents have contacted him. A few former dealers, speaking anonymously with the Los Angeles Times, confirmed the same. But Thomas Kinkade Company's CEO, Dan Byrne, denied that federal agents have contacted the Morgan Hill, California–based company and flatly stated that Kinkade has never used Christianity to seduce investors.

"Thom's faith is simply a fact of who he is," Byrne told CT. "But it is not part of a business plan or a business presentation."

At issue, Byrne said, were a few disgruntled investors who failed as gallery operators. "All these plaintiffs owe the company significant sums of money," he said. And the plaintiffs' attorney has courted media interest, Byrne said, "to get the company to settle and bring embarrassment and pressure on Thom."

Controversy has surrounded Kinkade for the past four years, after stock of the company he took public (Media Arts Group) plummeted from a high of $23 a share to less than $3. In 2004, he bought the company back at about $4 a share. Kinkade is now the sole owner.

His paintings are known for their vibrant colors and idyllic settings, their country cottages, chilly creeks, and glowing clouds. "The critics may not endorse me," the artist told CT in 2000. "But I own the hearts of the people."

Individual investors run some 500 Kinkade galleries worldwide, with the overwhelming majority in the United States. Signature Galleries, which sell only Kinkade art, cost upwards of $50,000 to open. Media Arts Group required that new owners attend a training conference called "Thomas Kinkade University." Yatooma said this is where his clients drank "the Kinkade Kool-Aid."

"Thomas Kinkade University had a revival-like atmosphere. They would close in prayer and join together in worship. Everybody would leave with their head spinning—now sign the dotted line," Yatooma said. "They thought they were going to make money by sharing the light."

But other dealers say they weren't coaxed into investing. "When I hear that, it is almost comical," said Mike Koligman, who owns four stores and chairs the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery Council. "We are in business to make money, and if we aren't making money, we aren't in business."

Still, Christians are eager to support businesses they believe will share God with others, said Stephen Christensen, managing director of the Center for Faith and Business at Concordia University in Irvine, California. "Perhaps we would not do our diligence in counting the cost because the business seems like it would be a good way to advance God's kingdom."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when a handful of former Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery owners filed civil arbitration claims against Kinkade's privately owned company. Claims were filed more than a year ago, before arbiters awarded two other former gallery owners $860,000 in their dispute with Kinkade. The attorney representing these plaintiffs, Norman Yatooma, said he plans to file four more civil claims soon.

Related Elsewhere:

Other coverage of Kinkade's dispute has included:

Painter Said to Be Focus of FBI Probe (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 29)
Complaints Rise Against Kinkade Art Company (All Things Considered, NPR, Aug. 30)

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Thomas Kinkade includes:

Darkness Looms for 'Painter of Light' | Economic struggles and criticism smudge Thomas Kinkade's work (Apr. 17, 2002)
The Kinkade Crusade | "America's most collected artist" is a Christian who seeks to sabotage Modernism by painting beauty, sentiment, and the memory of Eden. (Dec. 8, 2000)
The Artist as Prophet | What is Christian art, and what does it look like? A Christianity Today editorial (Dec. 8, 2000)

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