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Nuns Scammed for Millions on Painting, Suit Alleges

By Jim Meyers   |   Thursday, 19 Feb 2009 03:19 PM

A convent of nuns has filed a lawsuit against a New York State art appraiser claiming that he cheated the sisters out of $1.7 million in the sale of a painting.

The Daughters of Mary, Mother of Our Savior filed the suit in New York State Supreme Court against appraiser Mark Lasalle and art dealer Mark Zaplin, saying they “intentionally, deliberately, wantonly, maliciously [and] with evil motive … perpetuated fraud against” the nuns.

The sisters received the painting from a parishioner in 2002 and hung it in their chapel outside Albany, the New York Post reported.

When the order considered selling the work, they hired Lasalle to appraise it. He told the nuns the painting was worth between $150,000 and $250,000, and could fetch more if it was restored.

The painting was, in fact, a lost 1889 work by French master William-Adolphe Bouguereau, “Notre Dame D’Anges,” which had been displayed at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, according to a published report.

After the painting was restored, Lasalle allegedly told the nuns the work had a fair-market value of $350,000 to $450,000, and said he had a buyer for the painting: Zaplin.

Lasalle convinced the nuns not to put the painting up for auction, and Zaplin bought it for $450,000 in August 2006, the suit asserts.

Lasalle and Zaplin flipped the painting for more than $2 million, and it has since sold for over $5 million, according to the Post.

The deal was eventually revealed to the nuns through another art dealer, Paul Dumont, who was reportedly involved in the scheme but had a financial dispute with Lasalle and Zaplin.

“Mr. Lasalle said we could ‘screw’ the sisters and make a handsome profit,” Dumont said in an affidavit filed on the nuns’ behalf.

Lasalle’s attorney Dan Sleasman told the Post the allegations in the lawsuit are “false,” and the suit is “filled with one falsehood after another.”

The convent is seeking more than $50 million, charging fraud and unjust enrichment.

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