A judge has dismissed a defamation case filed against NHPR and several New Hampshire newspapers, including the Monitor, over reporting about a civil lawsuit involving more than a dozen paintings believed to be forgeries.
The Feb. 15 decision by Judge Brian Tucker of the Sullivan County Superior Court tossed out the 51 claims of defamation and conspiracy filed by Lorettann and Nikolas Gascard against the Monitor, Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, Keene Sentinel and New Hampshire Public Radio. They sought $250 million.
All the organizations had reported on the legal fight over paintings that the Gascards had sold to art collector Andy Hall, purported to be by well-respected figurative painter Leon Golub. The legal case culminated in a December 2018 ruling by a U.S. District Court jury in Concord that ordered the Gascards to pay Hall about $500,000. The jury agreed with Hall that the paintings were fakes.
After losing the civil case, the Gascards filed their civil suit in 2019 claiming that much of the reporting was defamatory for a variety of reasons, including quotes, headlines and even where online articles were placed on a newspaper’s website.
The publications jointly sought to have the case dismissed. Judge Tucker’s 27-page ruling upheld their motions, saying the reporting was factually true and covered by the fair-report privilege, which protects news outlets that report accurately on public records and proceedings, like court cases or municipal meetings.
The Gascards cited more than a dozen stories in 2017 and 2018, including a column by Monitor’s Ray Duckler, who interviewed Hall shortly after the court ruling came down. The Gascards’s defamation suit argued that the stories implied Lorettann Gascard had created the paintings herself, which was never proved, or that the mother and son duo had been charged with a crime whereas they faced only the civil suit filed by Hall.
In some instances, Judge Tucker ruled that defamation didn’t exist because the claims relied only on headlines and not the entire story. In other cases, including Duckler’s column, he ruled that the Gascards took published quotes out of context, ignoring part of a sentence that undermined their claim.
In several claims against the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, the defamation claim depended on web design for online stories.
The Ledger-Transcript published stories about the civil suit on its website under the header for news and crime. ” ‘News Crime’ appears above the story’s headline, with a stock photograph of a courtroom gavel under the headline,” Tucker wrote. “The Gascards complaint in each of these counts is that they were defamed by the placement of stories about their case on pages with references and links that included the word ‘crime’ … (that would) leave the average and reasonable reader with the false and misleading impression that criminal charges had been filed.”
However, Tucker wrote, “any defamatory connotation of a crime is eliminated by the content of the article.”
Tucker also dismissed the claim that the publications and Hall had conspired to create biased media coverage in order to help Hall’s legal case.
The alleged art fraud case drew national attention partly because Golub was a respected contemporary painter in the second half of the 20th century, although he is not well known outside art circles.
Between 2009 and 2011, Hall, an art collector who already owned some Golub works, spent $676,250 on 24 paintings believed to be by Golub that belonged to Lorettann Gascard, who had been an art history professor at Franklin Pierce University and who had studied with Golub, as well as her son Nikolas, according to court documents. The Gascards lived in Rindge, where the university is located.
Questions about the paintings’ authenticity arose when Hall planned a 2015 exhibition, resulting in a long and complicated legal battle with the Gascards. It culminated in Hall’s 2016 civil suit in the United States District Court in Concord.
The Gascards’s defamation claim also named Newspapers of New England, which owns the Monitor and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. Tucker dismissed NNE as a defendant because the Gascards did not state a claim against it.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbr...@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)