Friends told them about the California agent who specialized in developing child artists. Having already represented a girl he'd dubbed the "child Picasso," Alexandra Nechita, Valenty was marketing Dallas-area teenager Amanda Dunbar as a "child Renoir" when Michele Bennett contacted him about her precocious 11-year-old. His reputation for getting clients Oprah appearances and high-profile charity gigs was unparalleled.
"Visual art prodigies really don't fall off the tree. Any successful art prodigy over the past 10 years has been my discovery," Valenty boasts in a phone interview from his Southern California office in Rancho Santa Margarita. He says in court documents that he initially recognized Olivia's talent but turned her down because of his commitment to Dunbar. Valenty goes on to claim in the documents that Michele Bennett "would not take 'no' for an answer" and called him on an "almost daily" basis in order to secure representation for Olivia. Eventually, his work with Dunbar ended in a disagreement over the construction of a 60-foot-tall "Pyramid of Hope" charity monument to be built in Southern California. Valenty says the split with Dunbar ended "very amicably," and he then offered the Bennetts a contract.
On October 16, 2001, Matt and Michele, on Olivia's behalf, signed on the proverbial dotted line, giving Valenty the exclusive right to promote their daughter so that her work could be "published, produced, distributed...and sold in original and limited edition form." Valenty and the Bennetts agree that Valenty's promotions were more than mildly successful.
Valenty stretched his PR muscles, sending out myriad press releases and getting a Web site up and running. Galleries and collectors were alerted to the new Texas phenomenon. A book was planned. And, of course, there was the necessary media-friendly nickname. Olivia was the child O'Keeffe.
Olivia was whisked onto the set of Oprah in July 2002 in recognition of her donation to America's Fund for Afghan Children, which would later become a hotly disputed issue in the Bennetts' lawsuit against Valenty. One of Olivia's trademark paintings, a red rose intertwined with the American flag called "Let Freedom Bloom," was meant as a post-September 11 tribute. Proceeds of about $20,000 from sales of its limited-edition prints were slated to go to America's Fund for Afghan Children. Unfortunately, nobody thought to get the details of this agreement on paper, and both parties have a different take on where the eventual donation of just $8,800 came from, and how it got there.
Valenty claims that he and the Bennetts agreed to make separate contributions, and he forked over $8,800 as soon as he'd recovered production costs. In a sworn affidavit, Michele Bennett claims that Valenty said he'd donate the entire $20,000 but eventually handed over only $8,800 after "considerable pressure" from her. Whatever the actual events, Olivia had gained a reputation for being big-hearted, and people were taking notice.
Teen People named her one of their "20 teens who will change the world" in April 2003, and she got the opportunity to party it up in New York City with the likes of Kelly Osbourne and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
"Oprah was so surreal. It was so much fun," Olivia says. After the appearance, Winfrey commissioned a painting from her, and originals started selling to collectors (and several Oprah employees) for thousands, rather than hundreds, of dollars. It seemed like a win-win situation.
Valenty was taking his sizable cut (handing over between one-fourth and one-fifth of art sales and endorsement deals to Olivia in royalties and holding onto the rest in profits and expenses), but the Bennetts had no reason to complain--their daughter's talent had made more money than they could have ever anticipated when her ability to color inside the lines was recognized just a few years before. Olivia started homeschooling to dedicate more time to her art. Valenty had turned the preteen into another one of his miracle children--the child O'Keeffe, media darling and cancer survivor.
Caught up in their rapid successes, the Bennetts knew nothing of Valenty's troubled financial and legal history. A 20-year trail of questionable business ventures, lawsuits and bankruptcies haunts the artist's manager, according to public records. People magazine reported that he used to play drums for a small-time rock band. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn't come calling, he moved on to the coin-collecting business in the '80s, bankrupting his own firm in 1991, according to a columnist for the Orange County Register.
When Valenty stumbled onto the work of Alexandra Nechita in 1995, he struck gold. Finally able to use his PR-savvy personality to its fullest potential, he pushed the 9-year-old cubist's work to media outlets and celebrities, who soaked up her story as a Romanian immigrant trying to help her family achieve the American dream. Then there was 11-year-old Beso Kazaishvili, a refugee from the Republic of Georgia known for painting like Salvador Dali and coining catchphrases such as "art is the language, peace is the message."