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Jury: Agha cheated customer who bought 'antique' clock

PINE CONE STAFF REPORT

Published: June 10, 2011

ONE OF Monterey County’s most prominent businessmen fraudulently sold a modern clock to a customer who thought he was buying an antique, according to the jury in a trial that ended Tuesday.

Nader Agha, who owns Holman Antique Plaza in downtown Pacific Grove and a coin shop in Monterey — and who has been involved in a host of other local real estate deals, business enterprises, political campaigns and public controversies — made a “false representation of an important fact” when he sold a 10-foot-tall grandfather clock to Oakland businessman Theodore Vinther in October 2007, the 12-member jury said.

Throughout the trial, Vinther’s attorney, Yolanda Huang, maintained that Vinther bought what he believed was an elegantly carved, antique mahogany clock, and that Agha, who advertises his store as “the finest and largest antique purveyor in the county,” went to great lengths to convince Vinther that’s what it was. Also, Vinther believed that a “massive” sale under way at the store, with prices discounted “50 percent,” according to ads, meant he would probably get a good deal, she said.

But after Vinther bought the clock for $36,000, an expert in antiques restoration determined it was actually a modern replica of a Victorian-era clock. So Vinther asked for his money back. “This is a simple story,” Huang told the jury during closing arguments. “My client took the clock home and realized it wasn’t a real antique.”

But Agha refused to rescind the sale, maintaining that Vinther had been repeatedly notified he couldn’t return the clock once he took it from the store.

“You can have buyer’s remorse all you want, but you can’t come in and say you were cheated,” Agha’s attorney, Christopher Cayce said during the trial.

Cayce also maintained that Vinther had “immense, deep knowledge of grandfather clocks,” and had to know the Italian Renaissance-style clock he bought was a modern replica. Agha’s theory was that Vinther wanted the clock for its mechanism and may have asked for his money back after removing it. Therefore, it was Vinther who was acting in bad faith, Agha maintained.

Vinther had some strong documentary evidence to back his story, however — documents which apparently convinced the jury Agha was lying:

- At the time of the sale, Vinther was given a handwritten receipt made out by Agha’s wife, Nadia, who works for her husband. “10-22-07 Received $36,000 for Nader clock, Italian Renesons,” the misspelled receipt said.

- More than a year later, when he was about to be deposed in the case, Agha produced a different receipt, this one from a preprinted receipt book. The new receipt was also dated Oct. 22, 2007, and bore a serial number of 592631. “Carved Mahogany Grandfather Clock, $36,000 cash,” it said. In his April 2009 deposition, Agha testified he had prepared this receipt at the time of the sale and left it for Nadia to give to Vinther when he paid, but that she couldn’t find it, and that’s why she made out the first receipt.

- But when Vinther’s attorney asked to see the receipts from the preprinted book immediately before and after the new one, Agha’s attorney, Christopher Cayce, vehemently opposed the request. Only after Monterey County Superior Court Judge Kay Kingsley ordered Agha to produce them did Agha give Huang receipts 592630, which was dated Nov. 14, 2007, and 592632, dated Nov. 16, 2007. Vinther had asked for his money back on Nov. 15, 2007.

Cayce explained the long delay in producing the receipts and the discrepancy about when the second one was prepared by telling the jury, “We were just trying to sort out the evidence.” He also said Agha made out the new receipt in November not because of Vinther’s demand for his money back, but because “it was time to pay the taxes on the sale.”

But Huang argued that Agha “created” the second receipt that said “Mahogany grandfather clock” in an attempt to “defeat” the first receipt. And she said any reasonable person would look at Agha’s constantly shifting story as evidence he wasn’t telling the truth.

The jury agreed with Huang.

“We’re very grateful they recognized that my client was defrauded,” she said after the verdict.

The jury award Vinther no damages, however, apparently believing he should have known better than to pay $36,000 for a clock without doing more checking into its provenance.

The next step, Huang told The Pine Cone, is to ask Kingsley to order “rescission” of the sale of the clock — in other words, for Vinther to give the clock back, and for Agha to return the $36,000, which is exactly what Vinther asked for shortly after he bought the clock more than three years ago.

‘Attacks me for everything I do’

An unusual aspect of the trial was an effort by Agha and Cayce to discredit The Carmel Pine Cone and reporter Kelly Nix over a story he wrote soon after Vinther sued Agha, and to have reporter Chris Counts barred from covering the trial. Cayce told the judge he was afraid Counts would discuss the case with his co-worker. Kingsley denied the request to have Counts removed from the courtroom but ordered him and Nix not to discuss the case before Nix took the stand.

In a story published Oct. 31, 2008, and headlined, “Lawsuit claims $36,000 Italian Renaissance clock was a fake,” Nix quoted Agha as saying he told Vinther that the clock he was buying was “probably about 20 to 30 years old.”

But in his deposition six months later, Agha testified he “had no opinion” about the clock’s age.

Nix was subpoenaed by Huang to testify that Agha, in fact, made the statement about the clock’s being 20 to 30 years old. On cross examination, Cayce questioned Nix’s professionalism and motives for writing the story, picking apart certain quotes, even paraphrases, and questioning their origins. But Nix showed Cayce his original notes, which matched Agha’s quotes in the October 2008 story.

During earlier testimony, it became obvious Agha was upset The Pine Cone covered the story at all, calling it “yellow journalism” and “not worthy of news,” adding that the owner of The Pine Cone, “attacks me for everything I do.”

In front of the jury and the judge, Cayce attributed The Pine Cone’s supposed antipathy toward Agha to the fact that he was “trying to buy The Pine Cone,” which Cayce said upset the owner.

However, that statement was not true. Agha has never contacted anyone at The Pine Cone about buying it.

And if he had, Pine Cone publisher Paul Miller said in an email to Cayce after the trial, “I would not be upset at all. It has happened many times, from strangers and from friends. I always just tell them, ‘No,’ and go about my business.”

This story was written by Paul Miller, the owner and publisher of The Pine Cone, with additional reporting by Kelly Nix and Chris Counts.