Stolen 'Kiss' gets South Jersey woman a day in prison

This marble replica of August Rodin’s “The Kiss” stands in the Rodin Museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. On Monday, a West Deptford woman was sentenced for her role in the bizarre tale behind the disappearance of a rare bronze cast of the original.

George Hadley was baffled five years ago when he discovered a treasured family heirloom listed on the website of the auction house Christie’s before he had even noticed it missing.

But Monday in Philadelphia, the mystery of how his 2-foot bronze cast of The Kiss — one of sculptor Auguste Rodin’s most recognizable works — landed in the hands of the South Jersey woman offering it up for sale moved one step closer to a solution.

At a hearing in federal court, Karina Walton, 35, of West Deptford, who had claimed that the statue had been given to her by her father, was sentenced to a day in prison and a year of house arrest after admitting the story she told the auction house in 2013 was a lie.

“I’m sorry to Mr. Hadley,” the single mother of two told U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick. “I had no idea that it was his, and I had no idea that it was stolen. … I screwed up big.”

Camera icon Christie's
A bronze cast of Rodin’s “The Kiss,” a family heirloom belonging to George Hadley, went missing in 2012. He discovered it a year later on the website of the auction house Christie’s.

The Inquirer and Daily News spotlighted the bizarre tale of the missing Rodin last year and traced its path from the home of Hadley, a Boston airline pilot, to the art collection of a Philadelphia real estate heiress and eventually into the possession of a flea market vendor from Fishtown who was dating Walton at the time.

The story exposed shattered friendships and highlighted a string of improbable events that one lawyer likened to a Hollywood movie script. But it ended with an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Although Hadley managed to convince judges in New York and Philadelphia that he was the Rodin’s rightful owner, he wasn’t able to do so in time to stop its sale. An anonymous buyer in Hong Kong bought the statue for $965,000 – the majority of which Walton later agreed to hand over to Hadley.

Still, it was never quite clear how a woman whom Hadley had never met had come to possess the Rodin in the first place.

In court Monday — and at a similar sentencing hearing in June for Walton’s onetime boyfriend, James Davis, 58 — their lawyers filled in the gaps.

Davis, who was sentenced to eight months, routinely bought the contents of foreclosed storage units sight unseen from Tacony-based Superior Moving and Storage, hoping he might find valuables inside that he could resell at local flea markets. It was in one such lot that Walton found the Rodin in early 2013, later to discover its value.

The statue – depicting an illicit embrace of the adulterous characters Paolo and Francesca from Dante’s Divine Comedy — was one of a limited series of highly prized replicas of one of Rodin’s most famous works. Hadley’s grandfather George Washington Hill, the president of American Tobacco Co., purchased his copy from a foundry in Paris in 1913.

Neither Walton nor Davis was aware of the statue’s true origins at the time, Davis’ lawyer, Felicia Sarner, wrote in court papers prior to her client’s sentencing.

“Intoxicated by their good fortune, the pair threw all of their good judgment out the window and agreed to invent a story to [prove its] provenance,” she said.

Walton took it to Christie’s, claiming that her father had given her the piece when she was a teenager but that it had spent years in a cardboard box in her family’s garage because she knew little about it.

When Hadley came forward to claim it was his, Walton’s first instinct was to dig in her heels and perpetuate her lie. She asked family members to back up the tale she had spun and persisted with her falsehoods — even after Hadley sued her after the auction.

“As the incident drew on and she got deeper and deeper into it, she became scared to acknowledge her mistake,” her lawyer Leonard J. Grasso said. “She reached a point where it was difficult for her to extricate herself from it.”

Still, she did eventually confess, soon after the FBI began investigating the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney K.T. Newton said. Surrick, the judge, credited that move with his decision to grant her a one-day sentence Monday. He also ordered her and Davis to jointly pay Hadley $25,000 in restitution.

Court filings from a string of legal actions that the fight over the statue spawned over the last five years reveal the rest of the tale. (All parties involved, including Hadley himself, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.)

When Hadley last saw his Rodin, it was on display in the Newtown Square home of Elaine Moranz, a former Fox Rothschild lawyer and a close family friend to whom he had lent it in 1994. But only after Hadley spotted his statue on the Christie’s website did he learn that Moranz had died of ovarian cancer in 2011.

According to her husband, Joel, the Rodin had disappeared when a Philadelphia heiress who had been living with them at the time moved out shortly after his wife’s death. Like Hadley, Jana Paley had been a former client of Elaine Moranz’s and quickly grew into a close personal friend.

She maintained in a 2015 deposition that it was Joel Moranz’s decision to remarry that drove a wedge between them. She hired Superior Movers to ship her belongings out of the house in 2012 and took the Rodin with her.

Paley later claimed in an email to Hadley that she wanted to protect the statue from Joel Moranz’s new wife, whom she described as a gold digger.

But when Superior delivered Paley’s belongings to her house in Society Hill, the Rodin – along with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Paley’s own art and personal belongings — was missing.

And yet, as a Common Pleas Court judge in Philadelphia noted after Hadley sued Paley, Joel Moranz, and Superior in 2014 for failing to protect the statute from theft, several elements of Paley’s story failed to add up.

She claimed that she had spent months searching for Hadley to tell him what happened to the statue. Yet she had taken possession of Elaine Moranz’s phones, which had Hadley’s contact information.

She also had failed to mention the Rodin in her complaint with the moving company about her own missing belongings and never reported its apparent theft to the police or the FBI.

“Paley hoped that Hadley would never come looking for the Rodin,” Judge Gene D. Cohen wrote in a 2016 ruling ordering Paley and Superior to pay Hadley more than $1.8 million in damages. “Paley’s ultimate goal before the Rodin went missing was to keep [it] for herself.”

But even after Walton’s sentencing Monday, some questions linger — including how Superior came to sell the Rodin to Davis in the first place. Did someone at the company mistakenly sell Paley’s belongings, believing them to be abandoned property? Or did something more nefarious happen?

Prosecutors said Monday that they had investigated a third person, whom they didn’t identify, in connection with the Rodin’s disappearance but were unable to bring charges.

Regardless, Sarner, Davis’ lawyer, said in court filings last month that “there is no evidence that Mr. Davis did anything wrong in acquiring it.”

“Everyone dreams of winning the lottery or finding their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” she wrote. “It seems clear that he and Ms. Walton were intoxicated by the excitement and lost sight of all good judgment.”