Thomas Kinkade: Bad, not evil
Hamilton Nolan is snarking gleefully over the fact that Thomas Kinkade, whom he calls “Painter of Darkness”, has lost a round of the endless litigation he’s been involved in for years now, ever since he took his company private in 2004. Now I’m no fan of Kinkade. But the plaintiffs in this case are trying to make a pretty astonishing case: that they’re owed damages on the grounds that Kinkade talked a lot about God, and thereby fraudulently persuaded them to place their trust in him.
This argument doesn’t really hold water, and in fact Kinkade has — justly — won the vast majority of the lawsuits which have been brought against him. I wrote about this case at some length back in March 2006, so I might as well just plagiarize myself here: Kinkade is more of a bad businessman than an evil one.
Kinkade took his business public in 1994, with a $110 million IPO. Between 1997 and 2005, according to Kim Christensen of the LA Times, he earned more than $50 million in royalties. And at the end of Jauary 2004, just over 9 years after going public, Kinkade bought back his company for $32.7 million – a price about $14 million higher than the company’s market capitalisation at the time. People who bought Media Arts Group at $20 per share, of course, weren’t particularly thankful that Kinkade paid them $4 rather than $2.30 for their stock. But the fact is that Kinkade was more optimistic about the outlook for his company than the markets were.
The people who ran Kinkade stores are upset at him, because he acted a bit like Chrysler towards dealers it ended up closing: Kinkade forced the dealers to buy expensive inventory which simply didn’t sell, and refused to accept returns unless they were accompanied by orders for three times as much art as was being returned. Obviously, it was hard for the shops to make money in such circumstances. But I get the feeling they’re missing the forest for the trees: they weren’t losing money because of the decisions being made by Kinkade’s company, so much as they were losing money because they’d hitched their wagon to a company which was in a tailspin.
Obviously, they have every right to try to sue. But it’s pretty hard to make the case that one should expect better behavior from Christians than from non-Christians. And any company, once it starts failing, is going to result in people losing money. It’s also worth pointing out that virtually everyone who entered the Kinkade industry did so out of greed – not just Kinkade himself.
The store owners saw a booming market, and then lost money when the market stopped booming and the internet made secondary-market values of Kinkade’s work much more transparent. Suddenly, the enormous growth in past Kinkade sales was no longer a good thing: there were a lot of Kinkades to go around, and many of the buyers were people who bought on the assumption that their paintings would increase in value and they could make money on their investment. Up until the arrival of the internet, that worked for Kinkade, whose company set the prices for all his paintings and would raise them steadily. After the arrival of the internet, a whole industry arose buying and selling Kinkades at market-set, rather than Kinkade-set, prices. And that was the end of the success days for the company: without monopoly pricing power, Kinkade was nothing.
The stores failed, ultimately, not because Kinkade treated them badly, and not because other stores were undercutting them. The stores failed because Kinkades are a commodity, and anybody wanting to buy one could get a second-hand Kinkade online at a much lower price than that charged at retail. Buyers no longer believed that their paintings would increase in value, so they bought fewer than they used to. And when they did buy, they were likely to buy already-existing Kinkades rather than new ones.
As a general rule, no retailer has ever consistently been able to make money by selling the proposition that his goods are going to increase in value after they’re bought. Kinkade managed it for a few years, but then, inevitably, the bubble burst. And when bubbles burst, people get hurt. It’s not the fault of Thomas Kinkade, it’s simple market dynamics.