05/10/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
First there was the child Picasso, a 9-year-old Romanian refugee who made intense cubist paintings. Then came the child Dali, a 9-year-old immigrant from ex-Soviet Georgia. And in 2001 the world met the child O'Keeffe, 12-year-old Olivia Bennett from Texas. With their youth, budding artistic genius and media-friendly nicknames, they earned thousands of dollars and a bit of fame thanks to an art promoter named Ben Valenty. In March 2002 Valenty told PEOPLE that Bennett had "the most profound gift I have ever seen."
Now the trio has something else in common: They each took Valenty to court, claiming to various degrees that he ripped them off. "He took advantage of me," says Olivia Bennett, now 14. "What he's doing is wrong." In September Olivia's parents sued, alleging Valenty neglected to pay royalties and withheld sales records and money for a book about her artwork. "We've had so many tears," says her mother, Michelle, 40, of the legal battle, which has so far cost the Southlake, Texas, family $30,000 in legal fees. Valenty denies the allegations and similar charges from past clients. "Working with prodigies is my specialty," he says. "Why should anything be wrong with that?"
Not so long ago, Michelle Bennett would have agreed. In October 2001 she met Valenty at a Dallas art show and told him about Olivia, then 12, who began painting cheerful pictures of flowers while recovering from leukemia as a toddler. "Ben had a way of charming people," she recalls. He also had a history of getting attention for clients by linking them to worthy—if sometimes overambitious—causes. In 1999 he raised thousands from investors for a Festival of Peace at Pasadena's Rose Bowl stadium featuring circus performers to promote an 11-year-old Georgian immigrant named Beso Kazaishvili as the child Dali. Two years later he pitched a $40 million Pyramid of Hope to be funded by wealthy donors in the town of Apple Valley, Calif., to showcase the child Renoir, Amanda Dunbar.
Bennett had her own charity hook: After 9/11 she and Valenty announced a plan to raise $100,000 from art sales for a Red Cross-administered fund for Afghan children. Olivia soon met with President Bush, appeared on the Today
show and Oprah
and saw the price of her canvases soar to $16,000 each. In the end the drive raised about $30,000, and Valenty says he split the proceeds with the Bennetts with the understanding that each would give half to the charity. (The Red Cross acknowledges a gift of $13,800 from Valenty but nothing from the Bennetts.) "Olivia's contribution has been zero," he says. Michelle Bennett counters that Valenty kept 80 percent of the money, promising to give most of it to the fund, and that the rest—earned in royalties—was to stay with Olivia. "This was Ben's program," she says. "I don't know where the rest of the money is."
Before he began promoting young artists, Valenty, once a drummer in a small-time rock band, ran two telemarketing firms that were eventually shut down by the Federal Trade Commission. But his luck changed in 1995 when he met Alexandra Nechita, a 9-year-old Romanian immigrant whose paintings drew comparisons with Picasso's. By publicizing Alexandra's personal story, Valenty sold her pictures to stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Ellen DeGeneres and KISS guitarist Paul Stanley for as much as $125,000 each. But in 1999 Alexandra's parents sued, alleging Valenty withheld more than $2 million in royalties. The case was eventually settled, and the Nechita family now holds no grudge. "Mr. Valenty has maintained a professional relationship with Alexandra," reads a letter from the family to PEOPLE.
He's not so cozy with Beso Kazaishvili. The Festival of Peace project collapsed, and later Beso's family sued Valenty for withholding royalties and paintings. That case, too, was settled.
"Ben Valenty made big money with my son," says Beso's mother, Irma. "But nobody knows where the money went." Valenty calls her allegations "absolutely 1 million percent not true." As for Dunbar's $40 million Pyramid: In the autumn of 2001 Valenty called off that project too, "out of respect for the victims of Sept. 11," he said at the time, "in order not to be seen to misdirect any attention away from those victims." (Dunbar's family declined to comment for this story.)
But not all of Valenty's business relationships have ended in court. Akiane Kramarik, a 9-year-old artist now living in Idaho, signed with him last October. "Ben does more than he promises," her mother, Foreli Kramarik, says. "I trust him." For his part Valenty, who is countersuing the Bennetts, has no intention of getting out of the prodigy business. "I just stumble onto these wonderful kids," he says. "I'm just kind of a blue-collar guy trying to help them and get them going in the right direction."
Thomas Fields-Meyer. Champ Clark
in Los Angeles and Tracie Powell