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Court disbars lawyer who represented Atlanta art collector

A protracted legal battle that ensnared a veteran lawyer, a trailblazing Atlanta art collector and prized works by a legendary Southern folk artist drew to a close Monday with the state Supreme Court disbarring the attorney from ever practicing law again.

The court, by a 5-4 ruling, disbarred Gary Coulter for “exceptionally serious” violations of the rules that govern the practice of law.

At the center of the dispute were 121 drawings by Thornton Dial, an Alabama sharecropper’s son who rose to prominence for his pioneering work creating objects from cast-off materials. The drawings were found in Coulter’s possession.

When confronted,Coulter said he had been holding the works as security for his client’s unpaid legal bills, court records say.

That client was noted collector Bill Arnett, who promoted Dial’s work after they met in 1987. The drawings were worth an estimated $850,000  when Coulter was claiming he was owed as much as $300,000 in fees, the Georgia Supreme Court said Monday. And not only did Coulter keep the prized drawings in an unsecure location, he paid himself $400,000 out of Arnett’s accounts without fully accounting for the fees, the court said.

Atlanta art collector Bill Arnett. (BANDRES@AJC.COM/BOB ANDRES) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A year ago, the court refused to accept Coulter’s request that he receive a public reprimand and be suspended from practicing law for two years because of what he did to Arnett. On Monday, the court refused to go along with a new recommendation from a lawyer appointed to oversee the disciplinary case: that Coulter be suspended from practicing law for four years.

The court said that was not enough punishment and that Coulter must be disbarred. None of the four justices in dissent — Harold Melton, Carol Hunstein, Keith Blackwell and Michael Boggs — gave any explanation as to why they disagreed with the majority.

Thornton Dial’s 1997 assemblage, “Birmingham News,” is among the 54 works of art acquired by the High Museum from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. CONTRIBUTED BY HIGH MUSEUM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In its decision, the majority noted that Coulter had two prior disciplinary actions against him. When representing Arnett, Coulter moved hundreds of thousands of dollars of Arnett’s money through a dozen bank accounts, the court said. And he did so without setting up a dedicated trust account, required under legal ethics rules, and he failed to accurately account for or keep track of the transfers.

Coulter’s breaches of the rules “were vast in scope, consisted of numerous violations involving seven-figure sums in the aggregate and continued unabated over an extended period of time,” the court said.

Coulter, 72, practiced law out of an office in Watkinsville. He did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

Atlanta lawyer Linley Jones, who represents Arnett, noted the art collector began pursuing disciplinary action against Coulter in 2012.

Atlanta lawyer Linley Jones, who represents art collector Bill Arnett. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“It took us six years, but it finally happened,” Jones said. “We are absolutely thrilled.”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently opened the exhibit, “History Refused to Die: Highlights From the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift,” with help from Arnett and his foundation. The show has 30 paintings, sculptures, drawings and quilts by self-taught contemporary African American artists. It includes Dial’s haunting painting, “The End of November: The Birds That Didn’t Learn How to Fly.”

Said Jones, “If Bill had never had to suffer through this mess involving Mr. Coulter, this exhibit could have happened years ago.”

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