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Popular Christian painter Thomas Kinkade, who sold $130 million worth of art last year, told Christianity Today two years ago that "the critics may not endorse me, but I own the hearts of the people."

But now critical voices are gaining volume, sales are slumping, and some claim that Kinkade's popularity is waning due to over saturation of the market.

"It is one of those skyrockets we see from time to time," Calvin Goodman, a Los Angeles art-marketing consultant, told San Francisco Chronicle business columnist David Lazarus in January. "There's a big splash for a while and then people start saying, 'I wonder what happened to him.'"

In recent months, Lazarus has regularly covered Kinkade's Media Arts Group, which in November reported a net loss of $3.5 million for the quarter ending September 30, its third consecutive losing quarter. According to Lazarus, the company cut 100 jobs (one quarter of its staff) in February. Insiders expect more layoffs.

USA Todayreported last month that 15 of 360 independently owned Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries have closed. Others, like two owned by David Tehrani in California, are deep in debt. "The market has really cooled off," Tehrani told The San Francisco Chronicle. "We're really in a bind."

Gallery owners are also nervous because they speculate that Kinkade is maneuvering to take Media Arts private. The company first began trading publicly in 1994. In 1998 company stock traded for as high as $23. This week it is valued at under $3. Owners of galleries nationwide fear they could lose any control of the operation if it returns to private ownership.

As of January, Kinkade owned 35 percent of the company and has purchased 1,126,625 shares in the last year. According to Lazarus, a previous attempt ...

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