Michael Smerconish Sues Main Line Art Gallery for Fraud

Smerconish says he was duped by gallery owner. Gallery owner Walter Graham Arader III suggests Smerconish is "extorting" him.

A cropped version of "Exhibit B" in Michael Smerconish's lawsuit against Walter Graham Arader III. Smerconish (inset).

A cropped version of “Exhibit B” in Michael Smerconish’s lawsuit against Walter Graham Arader III. Smerconish (inset).

Even if you’ve never opened a history book, you’ve no doubt laid eyes on Yousuf Karsh‘s famous 1941 photograph of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The photo was taken in the middle of World War II and it has become the most iconic image of Churchill from that time period. So, when self-described Winston Churchill aficionado Michael Smerconish saw the photograph in a local gallery, signed by Churchill himself, he decided to add it to his collection. But now, Smerconish claims that he was duped.

Smerconish, through his attorney Shanin Specter at Kline & Specter, lays out his side of the story in a lawsuit filed on Monday in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court.

Smerconish says that he purchased the photograph from Arader Galleries of Philadelphia in 2000. This was long before Smerconish had his own show on CNN or even radio station 1210-AM. In those days, Smerconish was an attorney with the Beasley Firm in Center City, and he made the purchase from a downtown location of the gallery, today headquartered in King of Prussia.

According to the lawsuit, Smerconish bought the signed photo for $5,000, and it came with the following certificate of authenticity, signed by an expert working on behalf of the gallery:

This is to certify the autograph of Sir Winston Churchill described below is unconditionally guaranteed to be authentic. Churchill, Sir Winston L.S. English statesman and Prime Minister. An 8 by 10 photograph of Churchill taken by Yousuf Karsh showing the statesman standing in his Prime Minister’s office glaring at the camera, signed by Churchill at the upper left. “Yours Sincerely, Winston S. Churchill, 1942.” Excellent condition and the only one of this, the quintessential photography of Churchill we have ever seen offered for sale in the United States.

That was 2000. Fast forward to 2015, when Smerconish noticed that the Churchill autograph had begun to fade, and, like any good collector, he wanted to get it restored.

In April, Smerconish brought the photograph to the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. Much to Smerconish’s shock and dismay, the conservator there had serious doubts about the authenticity of the item, so further investigation ensued.

According to the suit, the conservator discovered that the image was not a photograph at all but a “two-tone halftone reproduction with an AM (amplitude modified) repeating screen pattern” and, further, that the image was not printed directly from any of Karsh’s negatives.

Smerconish enlisted an expert in Karsh’s photography, who indicated that the image is merely a reproduction from a book that was printed in or after 1980. Churchill died in 1965. Ergo, if the expert is correct, the signature must be a fake.

“We have no record of the sale,” insists gallery owner Walter Graham Arader III. “Whatever he says, it’s ridiculous. I have never heard of the guy before. It sounds like he’s just, what’s it called? He’s extorting me? Is that the right word? I don’t know him. I never heard of him. I have no recollection of the sale or having that piece of inventory.”

In the lawsuit, Smerconish accuses the gallery and Arader himself of fraud, breach of warranty, and breach of contract. He is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages over $50,000.

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