A case involving a pioneering Atlanta folk art collector and his veteran lawyer has come to a close with an attorney’s worst nightmare: lifelong disbarment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that on Monday, a state Supreme Court in Georgia’s capital ruled 5-4 that lawyer Gary Coulter would be banned from ever practicing law again, citing “exceptionally serious” violations that relate to one of his clients, Bill Arnett, the legendary Atlanta collector of African-American art.
Arnett founded the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, one of the country’s leading nonprofits dedicated to African-American artists in the south, with over 1,100 works in its collection by more than 160 artists. One of those artists is Thornton Dial, who was born to sharecroppers, became an artist who focused on making assemblages of found materials, and is now in the collections of MoMA and the Smithsonian. Dial died in 2016, at the age of 87.
In 2008, Coulter seized 121 works by Dial, reportedly worth $850,000 as security for $300,000 in fees owed to him by Arnett, who had been a client since 2003. The lawyer said they had a written agreement authorizing the arrangement, but Arnett fiercely denied such a document was ever signed, and Coulter was never able to produce one. The attorney returned Dial’s work to his client in November 2011, after first paying his firm $400,000 from Arnett’s accounts over which he had control. In 2012, Arnett began pursuing disciplinary action against his former attorney, seeking his disbarment. “It took us six years, but it finally happened,” Linley Jones, Arnett’s current legal council, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are absolutely thrilled.”
The Supreme Court opted to ban Coulter for life, against the lawyer’s stated wishes of being banned for just four years. The written decision noted that his violations were “vast in scope, consisted of numerous violations involving seven-figure sums in the aggregate and continued unabated over an extended period of time.”