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A former art gallery director was convicted Wednesday in an art fraud case that brought Robert De Niro to a witness stand to discuss a role he generally plays behind the scenes: artist's son.
Leigh Morse was found guilty of scheming to defraud four artists' estates by selling their works without telling them. But she was acquitted of a more serious grand larceny charge that specifically involved the estate of De Niro's artist father.
The charges against Morse stemmed from a more sweeping case against her former boss, now-imprisoned ex-gallery owner and admitted swindler Lawrence Salander. Morse's lawyer said she had nothing to do with Salander's $120 million scheme.
Morse, 55, could face up to four years in prison but won't necessarily get any time behind bars at her sentencing, set for June 3.
Morse "systematically looted the estates of her clients over a period of many years," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement.
While working at the now-shuttered Salander-O'Reilly Galleries LLC, Morse kept artists' estates in the dark about sales of more than 80 works, dissembling even after some estates began inquiring where the artworks were, prosecutors said.
Morse was acquitted of pocketing $77,000 in proceeds from selling two paintings by De Niro's father, the late Robert De Niro Sr.
The abstract expressionist selected Salander to represent his work, and his son continued the relationship after his father's 1993 death. Sale proceeds and most expenses in getting the artworks sold were to be split evenly, according to an agreement shown in court.
"I wasn't watching as carefully as I probably should have," the actor told jurors last month. But "I trusted Larry implicitly."
But De Niro said he eventually became concerned after a contemporary of his father's raised questions about Salander. The actor ultimately learned that Salander had signed over ownership of some of his father's work to an Italian gallery without his permission, and that the estate hadn't been paid its portion of any sales after 2001, he said.
De Niro cut ties with the gallery around the end of 2007 and rebuffed efforts by Morse and another staffer to get the estate's business back, he said.
The actor's spokesman didn't immediately return telephone and email messages Wednesday. Nor did Morse's lawyer, Andrew M. Lankler.
He said during the trial that Morse didn't know that De Niro wasn't getting paid, and she'd wanted clients to get what was due to them. She was owed $300,000 in commissions herself, Lankler said.
"Leigh Morse is a victim," he said during a closing argument last month.
Larry Salander pleaded guilty last year to bilking De Niro Sr.'s estate, John McEnroe and other clients. Salander, 61, is serving six to 18 years in prison.