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A stolen Kiss: the tale of a missing statue, an heiress, and a flea market vendor

If George Hadley had not been browsing the website of the auction house Christie's one fall evening four years ago, the fate of a cherished family heirloom might have remained a mystery.

This is the marble replica of the sculpture "The Kiss" that stands in the Parkway galleries of Philadelphia's Rodin Museum. The original is on display in the Musee Rodin in Paris. A bronze cast created a legal battle.
This is the marble replica of the sculpture "The Kiss" that stands in the Parkway galleries of Philadelphia's Rodin Museum. The original is on display in the Musee Rodin in Paris. A bronze cast created a legal battle.Read more

If George Hadley had not been browsing the website of the auction house Christie's one fall evening four years ago, the fate of a cherished family heirloom might have remained a mystery.

For sale was a two-foot bronze cast of one of Auguste Rodin's most recognizable works, The Kiss. It looked suspiciously like a Rodin that Hadley's family had owned for generations, one that, as far as he knew, was still prominently displayed in the home of a close friend in Newtown Square.

Hadley, a Boston-area airline pilot, would later learn that his statue had vanished from that house a year before. But proving that he was the rightful owner of the piece that eventually sold for nearly $1 million would take years.

The effort spanned continents, ended friendships, exposed petty jealousies, and cast suspicion on everyone from a prominent Philadelphia heiress to a pair of South Jersey flea market vendors.

It launched legal actions in courtrooms across the East Coast and a federal probe that only last month resulted in the arrest of a suspect in the theft.

None of the parties involved in Hadley's search, including Hadley himself, agreed to be interviewed for this story, citing the ongoing litigation and criminal investigation into the case. But transcripts from years of depositions and reams of court filings reveal a tale that, as one of Hadley's lawyers, Marc Zucker, put it in 2015, "seems ripe for a Hollywood movie."

But for Hadley, the listing on the Christie's website that night in October 2013 presented only a puzzle:

How had his statue ended up in the hands of a New Jersey woman who claimed that her family, too, had owned it for as long as she could remember?

Lost and found

The stories told by Hadley, then 61, and Karina Walton, the 30-year-old West Deptford woman who had put the statue up for sale with Christie's, could not have varied more.

Walton maintained that her father gave her the piece when she was a teenager.

But she knew little about the statue's origins, and it spent years in a cardboard box in her family's garage because her mother found it tasteless, she said in a 2013 court filing. It was not until Walton's ex-husband suggested in 2013 that it might be worth something that she learned anything about its history.

The bronze cast - depicting an illicit embrace between two adulterous characters from Dante's Divine Comedy - was one of a series of highly prized replicas of one of Rodin's most famous works.

When Rodin debuted The Kiss in 1889, the frank carnality portrayed in the lovers' intertwined forms disturbed some critics, but it became an immediate hit with the public.

A much-larger marble replica of the original stands in the Parkway galleries of Philadelphia's Rodin Museum. The original is on display in the Musee Rodin in Paris.

Rodin granted a license for casting bronze replicas to a foundry in Paris - which was where Hadley's grandfather, pioneering American Tobacco president George Washington Hill, bought his copy around 1913.

"I grew up with the statue as a little child," Hadley would testify in a 2015 deposition. "I used to play with my soldiers on the statue. It was a wonderful opportunity."

Hadley's mother would inherit the piece and eventually pass it on to Hadley upon her death in 1985.

After it appeared on Christie's website nearly three decades later, Hadley ultimately concluded it was his based on a few distinguishing features from the foundry and signs of wear from years of display within his family's homes.

Hadley contacted Christie's days before the scheduled auction in hopes of calling it off.

But without proof of theft, the auction house only agreed to place the proceeds in escrow until Hadley and Walton could settle their dispute.

The day of the sale, Hadley watched the bids roll online. It took less than 10 minutes for the piece his family had treasured for more than a century to sell for $965,000 to a buyer in Hong Kong.

"I was blown apart," Hadley would later testify. "I was heartbroken that it was gone."

A tale of two families

Within days of the sale, Walton sued Hadley in federal court in New York to collect the proceeds - a fight that quickly grew nasty.

Walton's story was impossible to believe, Hadley's lawyer John Sutherland argued, given that she did not come from family money and earned a living selling distressed goods at flea markets.

"She doesn't have any money . . . and there's no evidence that there's any in the family," he said during a 2014 court hearing. "They probably could never have afforded such an item."

Walton's lawyers accused Hadley of resorting to rank snobbery to hide his lack of evidence supporting his claims.

The pair settled out of court in early 2015 with Hadley receiving the majority of the proceeds.

But questions remained as to how the statue came to be in Walton's possession in the first place.

A costly move

The last time Hadley saw his statue it had been on display in the home of Elaine Moranz, an attorney and friend to whom he had lent it in 1994, when his career increasingly sent him abroad for long periods.

As Moranz's husband, Joel, and others would later testify, she loved the statue so much she redesigned an entire room to display it.

Moranz died of ovarian cancer in October 2011. But Hadley would not learn of her death until two years later - when he spotted the statue on the Christie's website.

"It brought Elaine to mind," he testified during a 2014 deposition. "I Googled her . . . and found her obituary."

Surprised to learn that no one had contacted him, he called Joel Moranz the next day and the story took another puzzling turn.

The statue, Moranz told him, had disappeared a year earlier in the possession of a Philadelphia real estate heiress that had been living at the Moranzes' Newtown Square house at the time.

Like Hadley, Jana Paley had been a former client of Elaine Moranz who had grown into a close friend. She moved in with the family in 1998 and lived with them off and on for the next 14 years.

A woman with a taste for fine art and designer clothes, Paley and her mother had combined financial holdings of more than $100 million, she said in a deposition last year. She testified that she had once spent $60,000 in three hours while shopping for clothes.

"I have very classic tastes," she said. "I buy things that are very classic, very beautiful, intended to last forever and I always take good care of them."

Joel Moranz's decision to remarry after Elaine's death drove a wedge between him and Paley.

She moved out of his house in 2012, hired movers to store her belongings and, without consulting Moranz, took Hadley's Rodin with her.

But when the company delivered her possessions to Paley's house in Society Hill, the statue - along with hundreds of thousands of dollars of Paley's own art and personal belongings - was missing.

Question of intentions

The story confounded Hadley. Why would a houseguest, with whom he had only a casual friendship, presume to take a valuable work of art that he had personally lent the Moranzes?

In her 2015 deposition, Paley explained: "The week [Elaine] died, she asked me to make sure that I took care of it. She just wanted to make sure that when Hadley ever asked for the sculpture back, that it would be returned to him. And I assured her that I would do that."

But several details of her story failed to add up, Hadley's lawyers would later argue.

Paley said she spent months searching for him in hopes of returning the statue but could find no way to reach him. Yet, she had taken possession of Elaine Moranz's phones - with Hadley's contact information - after her friend's death.

She later told Hadley in a 2013 email that she took the statue to protect it from Joel Moranz's new wife, whom she described as a gold digger.

But after it disappeared during the move, Paley failed to mention it in her original complaint to the moving company or notify police.

"Did I try to play Nancy Drew? No," she testified in 2015. "I had friends saying, 'These people at the movers know where you live. You start going to the police and . . . you're going to find yourself hit over the back of the head in your house and dead.' . . . [Y]ou stop and go on with your life, which is what I did."

When she eventually reported the theft to the FBI a month after discovering it was gone, Paley claimed the Rodin was her own.

In 2014, Hadley sued Joel Moranz, Paley, and her moving company - Superior Moving & Storage - accusing them all of contributing to the statue's loss.

Asked by attorneys during his deposition whether he believed Paley had stolen the sculpture, he hesitated.

"Steal is a loaded word, and I don't know how to answer that," he replied. "Do I think she took my statue without permission? Absolutely. And that comes perilously close."

Common Pleas Judge Gene Cohen went further. In a ruling last year, he ordered Paley and Superior to pay Hadley more than $1.8 million in damages.

"Paley hoped that Hadley would never come looking for the Rodin," the judge wrote. "Paley's ultimate goal, before [it] went missing, was to keep the Rodin for herself."

Solving the mystery

It was Mark Brenfleck, Superior's president, who finally bridged the gap between Paley and Walton.

Sitting in a deposition for Walton's 2014 lawsuit against Hadley, Brenfleck overheard lawyers discussing details of Walton's background. As he would later recount, they sounded startlingly familiar.

"That's where the bulb clicked," he said during a later deposition. "It started to kind of fit together like a puzzle."

Brenfleck's employees confirmed later that a woman named Karina Walton often hung around the Superior storage facility with her boyfriend, Jim Davis, a flea market vendor from Fishtown who regularly purchased items from foreclosed upon storage units in hopes he could resell them.

The coincidence, Brenfleck testified, was too much to ignore.

"I don't know how she got it from Superior," he said, "but it kind of leads me to think that maybe somehow they stole it off my dock or something."

Where is it now?

Last month, the FBI's Art Crime Team arrested Walton and charged her with the statue's theft.

According to the arrest affidavit, agents have since linked her and Davis, who has not been charged, to the theft of Paley's other missing art.

What's more, investigators say, her own family has since dismantled the story she told Christie's in 2013 about inheriting the statue from her father.

Walton's brother told agents he had never seen the Rodin in his sister's home.

Her mother testified in a deposition that her husband had never owned any artwork. When she urged her daughter to come clean about its origins, Walton purportedly refused, saying she was "in too deep."

Walton later distributed copies of her own deposition to family members so they could coordinate their stories, the FBI affidavit states.

Her lawyer, Leonard Grasso, declined to comment.

But for Hadley, the mystery remains half solved.

After three years, he now knows how his statue ended up on the auction block, but, he told lawyers in a 2015 deposition, he is no closer to finding out who has it now.

"To me, this is a very strong emotional piece," he said. "We are trying to find out who actually bought the statue. My goal is to get the statue back."

215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck