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Photo of Michael Jackson as Jesus Christ stolen, doctor claims

June 21, 2012 |  1:10 pm

Arnold KleinIt is a dispute pitting a man who takes pictures of famous people against one who makes their faces camera ready.

Arnold Klein, the Beverly Hills doctor touted as “dermatologist to the stars,” has accused David LaChapelle, famed for surrealist portraits of celebrities, of the theft of a piece of his own art. The photographer admitted reclaiming his work -- an image of Michael Jackson as Jesus Christ -- but insisted he did nothing wrong.

The quarrel between two auxiliary players in the celebrity world has gone on for more than a year, but it only became public recently when the Los Angeles district attorney’s office opted not to bring criminal charges against LaChapelle.

In a one-page document declining to prosecute the matter, a deputy district attorney wrote that there was no proof of Klein’s allegations of grand theft or LaChapelle’s denial of them.

“Neither victim nor suspect can be corroborated. There is no physical evidence.” prosecutor Jennifer Turkat wrote last month.

Klein declined to comment and a representative for LaChapelle said he was out of the country and unavailable.

The piece in question was part of a collection called “American Jesus” that LaChapelle showed in galleries around the world after Jackson’s death. It is a Pieta -- the traditional religious art scene of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus -- with the pop star in place of Christ. The work has been valued at $48,000, according to the prosecutor.

Jackson was a longtime client and friend of Klein's, but after the singer’s 2009 death, questions arose about the the care and prescription drugs he provided the singer. Klein acknowledged last year that he was the subject of a medical board investigation.

It was only one of a host of problems for Klein. He filed for bankruptcy protection and a 2010 fire damaged his beloved Windsor Square mansion where part of his $7-million art collection was held. Among the items affected was the Jackson photograph, which Klein described to police as a gift from LaChapelle.

Klein sent the piece back to the photographer for repair and LaChapelle subsequently refused to return it, according to a prosecutor’s summary of the case. When questioned by the LAPD’s Art Theft Detail, the photographer said the piece wasn’t a gift at all, but compensation for dermatological services that Klein had failed to provide.

Klein “could have artwork back when he paid for it,” according to the case summary.

Given the competing accounts of ownership, the prosecutor wrote, “The matter cannot be proven BRD” (beyond a reasonable doubt).

The photograph remains in the police evidence vault. A representative for LaChapelle said Klein’s ongoing bankruptcy proceedings seemed to be interfering with its return.

“We don’t know what’s happening with the piece,” said Patrick Toolan, a representative for LaChapelle.

Det. Don Hrycyk of the Art Theft Detail declined to explain why the police still have the artwork, saying that he didn’t want to aid or abet additional media attention for “these personalities.”

“I’m glad to get rid of it,” he said of the case.


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-- Harriet Ryan

Photo: Arnold Klein in 2007. Credit: Los Angeles Times