The first indication that something was wrong arrived in the form of an anonymous note, postmarked April 29, 2014, Charleston, S.C. Richard Sexton, a veteran photographer based out of New Orleans, received a strange notice in the mail. He had been working with the Rebekah Jacob Gallery since April 2009.
"Confidential: The RJG gallery at 502 King St. in Charleston, Carolina is about to be foreclosed upon due to non-payment of rent, including multiple lawsuits against Rebecca Jacobs [sic] for non-payment to artists even though work has sold. Settle your account, secure any remaining artwork, and remain on a cash-in-advance basis only, no matter how she begs and pleads," read the typewritten letter that arrived at Sexton's Bourbon Street mailing address.
Little did Sexton know that spring day that he'd been brought into a controversy that would span multiple states, more than five years, and a series of heated court battles. One of which had just been settled.
Earlier that April, artist Tim Hussey had reached a somewhat agreeable conclusion to his professional relationship with Rebekah Jacob. On the first of that month, Hussey's legal representatives had filed court documents declaring a satisfaction of judgement following a Charleston judge's ruling against Jacob in an unsavory civil suit.
"I believe we started working together in 2006. I was tipped off by a close friend that she had opened a space and that I'd be a good fit," says Hussey. "As far as I could tell, this was a nice person and excited to represent me. We got along well, but I saw a couple of moments when I was surprised at her response to some clients via the phone. But with no other options in town, I was willing to overlook them."
According to Hussey, he never regarded Jacob as a visionary or "big-time gallerist," but he recognized that she had a passion for contemporary work and the persistence to move both of their careers forward. Six years later, Hussey would rent a U-Haul to remove almost 130 pieces of his art from Jacob's gallery. While this may seem like an impulsive response to any situation, the rift in their professional relationship had been growing for some time before Hussey finally decided to make his move.
"The turning point was finding out that a piece had been sold and I hadn't heard about it. I asked where the work was, but she acted as if I must have had it. After pushing her, she 'remembered' that she sold it. I never could get her to turn over any billing transactions or clients' names that bought work. I like to follow up and send thank you notes to clients, so I needed the info to follow through," says Hussey. "Finally, I discovered that a client who happens to be a close friend showed me how much they paid for a drawing of mine — which was a couple of thousand more than I was told by Rebekah, meaning I received a considerably smaller commission."
The traditional arrangement with artists and Jacob's gallery was a 50/50 cut from all sales. The gallery agrees to show an artist's work and in return receive half of the final selling price. A look at contracts signed by Jacob and other artists show that this was standard operating procedure with the gallery. On paper, at least.
"I hadn't been paid for a good, long while for a few big pieces," says Hussey, who was one of eight artists who either spoke directly with the City Paper regarding similar problems with Jacob or took legal action against the gallery. "By that time, I was already planning to pull out of the space, but wanted to be paid up before creating a fuss."
After six months of unsatisfactory responses from Jacob regarding payment, Hussey arranged for a time to remove his work from the gallery while Jacob was out of town. In early October of 2012, Hussey loaded up 127 pieces of art into a U-Haul with the help of one of Jacob's interns at the time. His description of the scene inside the gallery remains disconcerting.
"Work was stacked, unprotected and jammed into a mess of art from years of hoarding other artists' work. Yes, of course, much of it was scuffed, canvases dented, frames marked up, etc.," he says. "I am not a fighter. I just wanted to pull out and move forward. I knew I might never get paid, but it was more important to detach from the bad energy in the gallery."
After removing his work from Jacob's gallery around Oct. 3, Hussey would receive an email from Red Baron Consulting, the firm enlisted on behalf of Jacob. On Oct. 18, Hussey received an email from Red Baron claiming, "Our team will be advising gallery owners in Los Angeles, Portland, Nashville, Atlanta, and elsewhere as to your shockingly repeated, underhanded methods of A) Going behind gallery owners' backs to engage in private sales with their private clients — during actual Hussey exhibitions whereby the gallery owner had sponsored you, and B) Your unannounced (and illegal) removal of your entire art collection from gallery drawers and walls (Charleston, S.C.) — whilst the gallery owner was publicly known to be out of town for a national fine art fair."
By Feb. 6, 2013, Hussey would file a formal complaint against Jacob and Red Baron, asking for his cut of the sale of two pieces — "Reclining Nude 59" and "Bathos 40." The complaint also mentioned that Baron Hanson of Red Baron Consulting had messaged third parties, referring to Hussey as a "dope head" and "little girl." Today, Jacob claims to have not seen all of the exchanges in question at the time, but says Baron was trying to "protect the brand" from what she described as a campaign to discredit her business.
"I'd never seen this kind of thing. The bizarre defamation choice was the final clincher that forced me to sue," says Hussey. "I've never been in a lawsuit in my life, and I'm very much against litigiousness. But for the sake of future artists, I hoped this would set some form of expose in the works."
Hussey's original demand worked out to $4,105 for the work sold, plus defamation and libel claims. Jacob and Hanson would message Hussey and the court, saying that her gallery had no dispute with the demand for money owed, but Hussey had yet to send a proper invoice. By July, Red Baron would write to Hussey's attorney, Patrick Chisum, and the judge overseeing the case that Jacob was considering a countersuit of up to $13,000 in damages. At the time, Red Baron accused Hussey of selling artwork outside of Hussey's agreement with Jacob and stealing work from Jacob's gallery. Specifically named in Red Baron's July 17 email is Mt. Pleasant attorney Mark Tanenbaum, who Baron claimed had purchased a work from Hussey in breach of his contract with Jacob. Tanenbaum soon responded to the court regarding these allegations, affirming that he had paid $5,072.38 for Hussey's "Reclining Nude 59" from Jacob's gallery, but the second work in question was not part of a backroom deal with Hussey.[pdf-2]
"I have been told that Rebekah Jacob has alleged I purchased the work 'Ring of Fire' directly from Mr. Hussey and disregarded her alleged representation of Mr. Hussey. That allegation is totally false. I commissioned artist David Boatwright to create the work entitled 'Ring of Fire,' purchased it from Mr. Boatwright, and at no time did I purchase this from or through Timothy Hussey. To my knowledge, and I am sure Ms. Jacob would agree, she had no relationship with Mr. Boatwright and no expectation of any compensation in that transaction," Tanenbaum wrote in a signed affidavit to the judge on Aug. 1, 2013. "In the past, I have had several problems with Rebekah Jacob and Rebekah Jacob Modern with incorrect invoices and charges on my American Express card that were not authorized."
It was at this point that Jacob decided to personally write the judge overseeing the case. Rather than filing a motion or following legal protocol, Jacob was up-front about her lack of courtroom savvy, instead taking a direct approach.
"Judge Dennis, I rest my case on the following statements: The truth has no filing date. I am not a lawyer," Jacob wrote the judge on Aug. 6, 2013.
In her message, Jacob declared that Hussey was "bullying" her gallery, which she insisted he had manipulated to invest more than $30,000 into his career. Again, Jacob alleged plans to file a countersuit that never materialized. To this day, Jacob says that a concerted campaign against her business continues to operate.[pdf-1]
By the end of 2013, Hussey had earned a $59,427.41 judgement against Jacob and Red Baron. To date, Hussey says he has only received the initial amount of commission for his work sold by Jacob.
"I only received the money she owed me from art sales. I was fine with that. The suit was more of a statement to not let this shit slide," says Hussey.
He adds, "I felt heard and justified and that was worth all the flights from LA. For the last four years, I estimate I've gotten 12-15 emails (modest number) from separate artists, buyers, shippers, framers, interior designers, other lawyers, and landlords — all searching for some kind of clue as to how to approach this woman who left them all high and dry with no answers. And I have no answer, because I still don't know what makes her tick and why her reputation hasn't stopped her from jumping from retail space to retail space in this small town."
n 2014, the same year Hussey declared a satisfaction of judgement and Sexton received an anonymous letter against Jacob, Syracuse-based photographer Shane Lavalette first made contact with the beleaguered gallery owner. Lavalette says Jacob seemed genuinely interested in photography from the American South, which was the subject of a project he had been working on at the time.
According to court documents, Jacob contacted Lavalette in June 2015 in order to begin selling his work. Earlier that year, Jacob had entered into a lease with the Sadler Group for her former 54 Broad St. gallery space, according to Ralph Sadler's testimony to Judge Jennifer McCoy on July 24, 2017. Lavalette was hundreds of miles from Jacob's new gallery space. Looking back, he was optimistic about his relationship with Jacob.
"She expressed interest in showing my work to some collectors that had been past clients of hers, and so I began by sending her a sample print or two, and then a portfolio, and then a few framed pieces to have on hand at the gallery. She made a sale of two prints to a client in July 2015, and I immediately produced the works for the client, signed and editioned them, and mailed them to the gallery," says Lavalette. "Our understanding and industry standard is that all sales are a 50/50 split, and so I invoiced her for my portion of the sale following. It wasn't long after this that she seemed to disappear almost entirely, and was not responsive to emails or phone calls when I would check in with her about the sale and the payment for my work."
Over the course of six months leading up to December 2015, Lavalette made multiple attempts to contact Jacob regarding the sale of his work, but received no satisfactory response. He ultimately asked for the return of all his work by certified letter. Once those pieces finally arrived, Lavalette reminded Jacob that he was owed money for works that had reportedly been sold. He later noted that several items were missing from the shipment he had received, according to court documents.
"They conceded to pay a portion of it by check, and it took a few weeks but eventually a check for part of what was due arrived in my mailbox. Unfortunately, when I went to deposit the check it bounced due to insufficient funds in their account," says Lavalette. "Looking back, I don't believe that they really intended to pay me at that time, but perhaps knew it would bounce and buy them some time. From there, I continued asking to be paid with no luck at all."
After a bounced check in March 2016, Lavalette finally decided to take legal action against Jacob in August of that year. Looking for an attorney who was close enough to knock on Jacob's gallery door at the time, Lavalette acquired the assistance of Chisum, the same lawyer who had represented Hussey, to carry out his legal action against Jacob.
"It felt like I had exhausted every other measure by then and started to wonder if I was alone in this bad experience with Rebekah's gallery. It was around that time that I reached out to a few other artists that had worked with her before, and I discovered that there was a clear pattern of her taking advantage of others, in various ways," says Lavalette. "I was sad to hear so many stories from artists that were wronged by her, but nobody knew what they could do about it. Nobody wanted to take legal action or say anything publicly, for fear of looking like a 'difficult artist.' "
Lavalette originally demanded $3,040 for his half of the sales of two photos. Based upon Jacob's previous history with artists, the court would deem Lavalette deserving of much more. On June 14, 2017, Lavalette was awarded his original complaint against Jacob, plus treble damages of $6,080 and legal fees of $2,175 — bringing the grand total of the judgement to $11,638. Treble damages are invoked in cases where a judge deems it necessary to designate a harsher punishment to deter certain types of malicious behavior and discourage others from similar behavior. Regarding the case, Jacob contends that she was unaware of the court case until matters had already been settled.[pdf-3]
"There was a lot of paperwork coming in that I didn't receive because I wasn't in Charleston to receive it. So I missed a lot of incoming information. Not to be passive about it, but I just physically wasn't here to receive it," says Jacob of the civil court case that stretched over 10 months.
Regardless of the judge's decision, Jacob still claims that Lavalette is wrong about missing pieces of art and lack of proper payment. She says her gallery never had possession of the items, chalking the whole dispute up to a discrepancy in inventory records.
"Artists typically don't keep good records," Jacob says. "So that's why I've shifted to working with a partner where we buy inventory outright and there's not any of this back-end messy stuff. It's difficult to manage. It's difficult to make money. It's difficult to grow your business. I've been doing this a long time, and this stuff comes up all the time."
Jacob compares her previous business dynamic of a continued back and forth with artists to trying to wrangle a classroom full of children, saying, "I have friends who are kindergarten teachers. My day, when I was doing business that way, sounded like their day. Just like a circus of just risk and allegations, all these curveballs."
Having spent much of 2016 working on her memoir, which she hopes to release this winter, Jacob is also gearing up for a five-week trip that will take her out of the country. According to Lavalette, Jacob has not paid anything since the June 2017 judgement against her.
"I would love to be compensated for what I am owed, but I'd like most to see that she doesn't continue to mislead or take advantage of other artists in the future. Her actions make it clear that she does not care about artists and therefore should not be in the business of art," says Lavalette.
As all this was transpiring, Richard Sexton, the New Orleans-based photographer had finally decided to end his seven-year professional relationship with Jacob. It had been almost two years since he received that mysterious letter in the mail. Sexton says Jacob's failure to pay on time and damaged artwork led to his decision to sever ties. In the end, Sexton says he is owed more than $3,000 for print sales and lost and damaged prints.
"In the gallery business, the relationship between the gallery director and the artist involves a lot of trust. The artist is trusting the gallery owner to timely report the sale and pay the correct amount. It puts all the power in the hands of the gallery owner and very little in the hands of the artist," says Sexton. "If you talk to artists across the country, they will tell you this becomes an issue whenever the trust between artist and gallery is breached."
In January 2016, Sexton traveled from New Orleans to Charleston to recover some of his work from Jacob's gallery. Upon visiting the gallery, he claims that there were several pieces that Jacob couldn't account for, including a limited-edition piece that was missing. Sexton says Jacob told him that the print was at the framer's. A series of email exchanges argues otherwise.
After asking for the framer's contact information, emails show that Jacob directed Sexton to Havens Fine Framing in Mt. Pleasant. Sharing an image of the photo in question, Sexton was eventually told by the framer on March 31, 2016, that they denied ever having possession of the work. Jacob claims that the print was eventually recovered and sold, attributing the lost work to an inventory error on her part. The apparent exception to her lack of confidence in other artists' management skills, Jacob admits that Sexton is an excellent record keeper.
"It's not fair. It's bad for the community. It's bad for the industry. And it's bad for Charleston," says Sexton. "The gallery business and the art business is a tough business. The vast majority who attempt it fail because art is something that only those with substantial discretionary income can afford, and it's never a vital purchase, but is completely discretionary. Many in the gallery business invest their ego and their fortune. In an effort to survive, Rebekah has lost her moral compass."
acob did not appear in municipal court for her July 24, 2017, hearing where Ralph Sadler would describe the souring of his relationship with his former tenant of 54 Broad St. With the hearing set to begin at 9:30 a.m. that Monday morning, Magistrate Judge McCoy entered the small courtroom at 995 Morrison Drive around 9:40 a.m. and asked all the parties involved to identify themselves. Realizing that Jacob was not present, the judge gave the defendant a few extra minutes to arrive as she went to see if Jacob had left any messages with the front desk. She had not.
Beginning the hearing in Jacob's absence, Sadler explained that Jacob had signed on to a three-year lease for the Broad Street property with rent starting at $2,250 a month. Sadler told the judge that a bookkeeping error in his office led to Jacob not being entered into the company's billing system. By August 2016, Sadler said it became apparent that Jacob had not paid rent on the property in some time.
Sadler said he confronted Jacob about the rent issue, leading to several months of back and forth, a bounced check in November, and finally Jacob's eviction in February 2017. Coupled with necessary repair work following some unfinished renovations by Jacob, Sadler told the judge that the gallery owner owed a total of $49,327.42.
With Jacob failing to plead her case, Judge McCoy ruled in Sadler's favor and issued a distress warrant, which would allow a public auction for all the items Jacob left behind in the gallery. That public sale is currently scheduled for Aug. 28 at 10 a.m.
According to the judge, distress warrants are rare. Certain items are not allowed to be auctioned off under the order, including personal clothing, food, and property belonging to a third party, such as artists who may have had their work left behind at the gallery.
"There was so much stuff in the space, I just couldn't put it on the street," Sadler told the judge. "It was too nice."
Justin Herrington of Born Again Heartwoods estimates that a dozen or so of his custom furniture pieces made it into Jacob's former Broad Street office before she stepped away from the property. At his business, Herrington and his partner Bill Long salvage cypress and pine from the rivers, swamps, and lakes across South Carolina, and turn the recovered lumber into custom-made furniture pieces. According to Herrington, his company had handed over several of these items to be used in Jacob's gallery space, with the understanding that she might sell a few and earn him a little extra money.
Jacob says she and Born Again Heartwoods had a "loose" agreement where her gallery would show the furniture pieces, but few sold. Now Herrington is trying to figure out what exactly happened to his missing $30,000 worth of furniture.
"The impression we had is that she was going to try to sell this stuff. It being in her gallery, she would get some use out of it and try to sell it. She played that story for quite a while and over a period of time, we probably had 11 or 12 pieces in there," Herrington says.
According to Herrington, Jacob did sell a few pieces for his company, and he had no reason to distrust her. That was until a few months after Jacob left her Broad Street office when Herrington received a phone call informing him that Jacob had changed locations.
"I went by her new location, and she didn't have any of my stuff in there. I asked her, I said, "Rebekah, where's my stuff?" She just acted dumb. She acted like she didn't know. I've never dealt with anyone like this in my life," says Herrington. "We never gave her any reason to do us wrong. Basically, what she did is when she got evicted, she just walked out and left everything in there. She didn't bother to call us. I understand it would have been just as easy with a phone call for us to come and pick up our stuff back in February. Ultimately, we still haven't gotten our stuff back."
When asked about the physical location of these furniture pieces, Jacob says that some remain in the Broad Street space, while others are in an off-site storage unit. Regarding the court proceedings that paved the way for the items remaining in her former gallery space to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, Jacob again contends that she was simply out of town while the matter was being considered by the court.
"It happened in a way because I travel so much that I just didn't get the proper paperwork. And I just wasn't in town, basically. Then I did receive documents when I moved to 49 John [St.] — ironically," Jacob says, referring to the current location of her gallery on John Street.
Leading up to Aug. 3, following Judge McCoy's distress warrant for items remaining in Jacob's former Broad Street office, Herrington was unaware that a public auction would be taking place. And he still had no idea when or if he would ever recover his property, leaving Herrington in a precarious position that many artists unfortunately face in the gallery business.
orking with New York-based nonprofit Light Work, Lavalette helps support other artists through exhibitions, publications, grants, and shared workspace. Understanding how difficult it is for new artists to get their work into the world and financially support their careers, Lavalette encourages artists to first find a gallery that represents artists that they like and talk to other artists before entering into a new business relationship with a gallery. A major part of this is getting to know gallery directors on a personal level, for better or worse.
"For many early-career artists, all opportunities are exciting because they can lead to bigger things. Such artists are often willing to invest their time and money in an opportunity that may not be measurably beneficial because of the slim possibility of something career-changing happening," says Lavalette. "It may be possible, but this can make these artists particularly vulnerable."
Terry Fox, cofounder of the Charleston Arts Festival who serves on the board of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, says Jacob has alienated herself from many in the local art community. But he can still recall the potential that Jacob exhibited when she first set up shop in Charleston.
"People saw her with good looks and intellect, talking a good game and having appealing, slick-looking gallery spaces. She was poised to be one of the premier gallerists in the city at the point at which she started," says Fox. "She started in a space on lower King Street. It was small, but it was very effective for what she needed at the time. I don't know why she left there, but then she moved to a space on Upper King, which is now a Starbucks. That was a stunning gallery. The only deficit in that location may have been that it was 15 minutes ahead of its time. She was poised to have credibility and have a good, strong career with community support. But no one did this to her. She did it all to herself."
Today, Jacob says her business is in the best state it's been since she opened shop in Charleston. She casts off allegations of stolen work "that I never could have sold anyway" as a malicious pattern of lies. Jacob worries that she's been too quiet in the past regarding the mounting allegations and court decisions made against her. Looking back on everything that has transpired, she admits that her business has been affected by the negative comments levelled against her.
Asked directly if she has ever knowingly withheld news of a sale from an artist for the purpose of not paying a commission, Jacob responds, "No, I'm too Catholic. My parents raised me right." Denying the claims made against her, Jacob believes that the outcomes of the court rulings against her would have been different if she had just spoken out more or been more aware of what was playing out in court. While Jacob may not have been physically present for a number of hearings and contends to have been out of the loop leading up to many of the judgements, her letter to the judge overseeing the Tim Hussey case shows that at least that case had her attention.
"The Hussey case, yes, I was very aware of what was going on," says Jacob.
She adds, "But that started the bleed. That cancer that we're talking about now, that was the start."
Jacob's response to complaints from artists that they were not paid in a timely manner is simply to ask: What were their expectations in general? Did they want to have their work in a museum? Did they want to make money or just have an exhibition? In posing those questions, Jacob considers a changing dynamic in her relationship with artists.
"I was on the front end of tech. We were very tech heavy, and we were very aggressive in that model. And in doing so, I didn't have to, want to, need to build artists' careers, which had been a very traditional way of doing business," she says.
With more than 30 years in the art business, Richard Sexton understands the delicate position that artists face when they begin working with a gallery. They hand over their most cherished work and place it in the hands of someone they have little choice but to fully trust. In the best cases, this leads to an artist's first big break and the possibility of a lasting professional relationship. In the worst cases, you lose everything.
"I do feel badly for her," Sexton says of Jacob. "I feel badly she's in the situation she appears to be in. She's disenfranchised me and other artists. I don't think that's what she intended when she entered this business. I have gone public with my experience with her as a kind of intervention that's become necessary. It's her dream, that's just ended up as a nightmare."