Prominent gay Atlanta art dealer Bill Lowe, accused of pocketing the proceeds from selling the artwork of others instead of paying them, pleaded guilty during a contentious court hearing on Tuesday.
Lowe, 64, faced up to 40 years in prison and a $1.2 million fine on three charges – one count of violating the state's Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act and two counts of theft by conversion. The charges stem from a criminal case in which prosecutors said Lowe repeatedly withheld payments to artists over a nearly 14-year period, from November 2001 through September 2015.
On Tuesday, Lowe pleaded guilty to a single count of theft by conversion using an Alford plea, which allows a person to plead guilty but not admit to the criminal act while agreeing that the evidence is enough to convince a jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As part of the plea he negotiated with Fulton prosecutors, Lowe was sentenced as s first offender to 10 years probation and ordered to pay restitution of $256,514.19.
"The defendant Mr. Lowe was an art dealer and operated an art gallery in Atlanta widely reputed to be the largest and best art gallery in town. Artists around the county craved to have Mr. Lowe and his gallery show their artwork," Brad Malkin, Fulton's Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney, said during the hearing Tuesday.
"Mr. Lowe engaged in a pattern of receiving the artwork and then not disclosing to the artists when the artwork was sold or the correct sales price sometimes for months and years," Malkin added.
Lowe would accept work from artists on consignment to market, show and sell the pieces with an agreement to split the proceeds with the artists. Instead, Malkin said, Lowe would keep the money, comingle it with business finances, convert it to his own use and not pay the artists.
"The reality in this case is that Mr. Lowe probably ought not to be permitted to work in this industry," he said.
The guilty plea on Tuesday brought an end to a criminal case against Lowe that started in 2013 when Atlanta police raided his then 13,000-square-foot Bill Lowe Gallery in Buckhead. Artists from around the country complained that Lowe failed to pay them, allegations the gallery owner called "inaccurate."
But Lowe continued to contest the criminal case as late as Tuesday during the plea hearing. His attorneys – Arthur Leach and Bruce Harvey – huddled with Malkin behind closed doors for hours before they emerged to proceed with the hearing.
"People have told me even when I try to defend what I know is right I sound arrogant," Lowe told Leach.
Lowe also hesitated to sign court documents finalizing the plea deal and questioned his attorneys if the Alford plea and first offender status was the best option for him.
During a back-and-forth between Lowe and his attorneys, Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville interrupted to ask if they were ready to move forward with the plea.
"We're hovering over the signature line now," Harvey said.
As Malkin moved through a list of routine questions common in a plea hearing, he asked Lowe if anyone was forcing him to enter his plea. Lowe hesitated a few seconds before answering no.
When Lowe was asked if he was pleading guilty because he wanted to, Lowe replied, "because I have been advised it is in my best interest."
Glanville then interrupted, offering a reminder to Lowe that he has had "multiple discussions" with his attorneys about the case and has agreed to the sentence recommended by prosecutors.
"This case has been going on for a while," Glanville said.
'I am making all of the artists whole'
Lowe was indicted on Sept. 4, 2015. The 21-page document alleged that Lowe owed about $561,000 to more than a dozen artists from the proceeds of selling their artwork.
Lowe was arrested and on Sept. 14, he was released from jail on a $300,000 bond and ordered to surrender his passport and not take part in the financial side of his business. A month later, on Oct. 9, Lowe pleaded not guilty to the three felony charges.
During the hearing Tuesday, Lowe acknowledged fault for the missing payments to artists in a statement read by Leach as a condition of the plea agreement.
"I acknowledge that artists relied upon on me to receive payments from the sale of artwork. I did not fully and properly reimburse artists in a timely fashion," Lowe said in the statement.
"I am making all of the artists whole and am glad to be doing so at this time," he added.
The more than $256,000 restitution to artists that Lowe was ordered to pay has already been placed in an escrow account. He was also ordered to return 39 pieces of art to their creators within 60 days at his own expense.
"We negotiated the restitution meticulously with the state," Leach said. "This is something that has taken literally months for us to come to."
Lowe was also ordered to perform 750 hours of community service and warned that breaking the law during his probation would be a violation that threatened his sentence.
The probation did not include any travel restrictions but required Lowe to seek approval for any travel outside Georgia. Lowe's attorneys strongly objected to that provision.
"Mr. Lowe frequently travels all around the United States in his capacity as an art dealer. He also frequently travels overseas. We're talking about all the time. He also has medical needs that he needs to travel out of the country for all of the time," Harvey said.
Harvey asked Glanville to order that Lowe did not have to seek approval for his out-of-state trips. A probation officer at the hearing said Lowe, like other felons, would be required to personally appear before probation officials to request a travel permit.
Harvey continued to object.
"But he is not a felon. The court accepted first offender treatment," Harvey said.
"I think it is going to be a very huge impediment to his continued survival," he added.
Glanville retorted that "if it becomes onerous," he would consider making other arrangements for Lowe. He added that once Lowe completes his community service and fully pays restitution to his victims that he would consider ending the probation requirements.
"As soon as he has completed all that, he can petition the court to terminate the balance of his sentence," Glanville said.
Lowe moved from his expansive Peachtree Street venue – the gallery's home since 2008 – to a more modest building on Miami Circle in 2014. Before the criminal case – and since the raid in 2013 – Lowe continued to host LGBT fundraisers for groups, including the Big Wigs of the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus, the gay jocks of Action Cycling and the now-defunct YouthPride. In 2012, Project Q Atlanta readers voted it Bestest Art Gallery.