upper waypoint

Art and Psychiatry On Trial: The Strange Case of Pierce v. Oremland

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Henri Matisse, ‘Vue de Paris,’ circa 1899, one of several works of art referenced in a lawsuit involving a psychiatrist and his patient. (Recorded in the Henri Matisse Archive No. PZ334)

When he died earlier this year, Dr. Jerome D. Oremland was hailed as a leading Bay Area psychiatrist, an art collector and the author of multiple books exploring the overlapping realms of art and psychology.

Now, his estate is embroiled in a malpractice lawsuit set for trial Oct. 3 in the San Francisco Superior Court. The suit claims Oremland violated professional boundaries and induced a patient, John Pierce, to give him at least a dozen rare works of art by masters such as French modernist Henri Matisse and Italian Renaissance artist Raphael.

Henri Matisse, 'Nu debout,' 1904.
Henri Matisse, ‘Nu debout,’ 1904. (Recorded in the Henri Matisse Archive)

Pierce’s lawsuit, filed in 2015 before the psychiatrist died, also claims Oremland improperly used his patient as a private detective to conduct “unsavory” investigations, as a handyman to clean his swimming pool, and as “essentially a personal servant,” before manipulating Pierce in an attempt to cover up his allegedly unethical use of a vulnerable patient.

In court records, lawyers for Oremland’s estate deny the allegations. They say the patient consented to any business dealings he may have had with Oremland, and any art he gave the doctor was given willingly as payment for psychiatric treatment.

The patient and the psychiatrist

Pierce, the lawsuit says, had a history of psychological difficulties and several hospitalizations before he began intensive therapy with Oremland in 1984.

John Pierce
John Pierce. (Photo courtesy John Pierce)

Oremland was a prominent psychiatrist with a “regal manner,” a “Renaissance man” known for opulent soirees at his Sausalito home and his exacting standards in all things, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in an obituary published upon Oremland’s death in February 2016. He died from cancer at age 87.

In addition to his private practice, Oremland had served as chief of psychiatry at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco and taught clinical psychiatry at UCSF. His interest in the arts led him to write a novel titled The Man Who Killed Caravaggio, about the Italian painter, and the nonfiction book Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling: A Psychoanalytic Study of Creativity.


Pierce and Oremland met three times a week for 26 years, before gradually reducing the sessions and ending them altogether in mid-2014. Meanwhile, Pierce was a successful building contractor and, like Oremland, collected art.

But along the way, the lawsuit claims, Oremland also breached professional boundaries and exploited a vulnerable patient for his own gain.

Trading art for therapy

Pierce, now 67, says in court papers that during therapy sessions with the psychiatrist, he was induced to give Oremland a dozen “high end” art works, including paintings by Matisse, Luca Giordano, Nicolaes Maes and Ferdinand Bol; drawings by Raphael, Joan Miró and Edvard Munch; and a bust of Egon Schiele.

Bust of Egon Schiele
Bust of Egon Schiele

During one session, he claims, the psychiatrist convinced Pierce to buy 12 rare David Park woodcuts titled Genesis, and to give him eight of them.

Oremland also allegedly “cajoled” Pierce into convincing a friend to sell a rare Albrecht Dürer book, The Little Passion, to a socialite who was also one of Oremland’s patients. As a commission on the $15,000 sale, the lawsuit claims, Oremland received an old master print. (The lawsuit does not specify the artist.)

Although the art was supposedly payment for therapy, the lawsuit claims, Oremland used many of their sessions to solicit art, propose financial schemes and discuss other subjects unrelated to treatment.

Geoffrey Spellberg, Pierce’s attorney, said in an interview that the lawsuit claims Oremland received the artwork at a “fraction” of its value and “basically stole it under the guise of providing psychotherapy.”

David Shuey and Lisa Ungerer, attorneys for Oremland’s estate, did not respond to requests for comment.

Drawing the line

The American Psychiatric Association’s ethics guidelines warn psychiatrists to respect professional boundaries, because patients “may be especially vulnerable to undue influences.” The APA continues: “the psychiatrist should be sensitive and careful that his/her conduct does not physically, sexually, psychologically, spiritually or financially exploit or harm the patient.”

In an interview, Dr. Charles Dike, a member of the APA ethics committee and assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University, declined comment on the Orlemand lawsuit specifically. He noted that sexual relations with current and former patients are strictly prohibited, and that other involvements outside the therapeutic relationship — such as business dealings, accepting gifts and bartering goods for treatment — are strongly discouraged because they can likewise undermine therapy and lead to exploitation.

Joan Miró, 'Femme et oiseau dans la nuit,' 1972.
Joan Miró, ‘Femme et oiseau dans la nuit,’ 1972.

The frequency of such boundary violations is unknown. Current Psychiatry, a professional journal, reported in 2008 that an estimated 6 to 10 percent of psychiatrists engaged in sexual relationships with patients. Other kinds of boundary violations occur more often, the journal said.

The article concluded, “Don’t foster dependence, use patients for your own gratification, have extra-therapeutic contact, or accept gifts or services from patients.”

Private investigations

The lawsuit maintains Orlemand extracted more than just art from Pierce. During several sessions, the lawsuit claims, Oremland led him to invest in the Cascade Acceptance Corporation, an investment firm with which Oremland had a relationship. Pierce did so, it says, and lost about $350,000.

The psychiatrist also allegedly persuaded Pierce, a licensed private detective, to conduct various investigations, some involving other patients.

In one instance, Oremland allegedly revealed to Pierce that another patient was concerned about mysterious charges to the credit card of her husband. At Oremland’s request, Pierce investigated and confirmed the charges were from a “lap dancing establishment,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit does not identify the patient or her husband.

Oremland also prevailed upon Pierce to investigate the man who was to marry his youngest daughter, the lawsuit says.

Pierce’s lawsuit claims Oremland used him as “essentially a personal servant.” In a court declaration, he said, “It was common during a therapy session for Dr. Oremland to interrupt the therapy and give me direction as to what work he wanted me to perform.”

Oremland allegedly had Pierce make repairs on his home, offices and rental units, clear out the home of his deceased brother, and clean his pool — work the lawsuit values at $200,000.

The psychiatrist sometimes invited him to parties for the San Francisco Ballet, the lawsuit says, where he became obligated to make contributions.

All the while, Oremland failed to maintain professional objectivity and misdiagnosed Pierce, the lawsuit claims, telling him at one point that he “suffered from bad thoughts” but “I love you.”

‘Legitimate Payment for Therapy’

In 2012, Oremland allegedly moved to cover up his exploitation of Pierce by drafting a statement for Pierce to sign that said the psychiatrist had acted only in Pierce’s interests. A copy of the statement filed in court says, “In summary, Dr. Oremland, he has never profited from our relationship in any way other than the professional fees I pay him.” Pierce claims that Oremland coerced him to sign it.

In the lawsuit, Pierce demands the return of the artwork, compensation for his work, and repayment of fees he paid Oremland. The estate denies Pierce is owed anything.

In court records, John D. Teter, the executor of Oremland’s estate, insists that any transfers of art from Pierce to the psychiatrist were legitimate payment for therapy; he further denies that Pierce was injured. Teter did not respond to a request for comment.



Seth Rosenfeld, formerly a staff reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications. He is the author of Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
You Can Get Free Ice Cream on Tuesday — No CatchThis Sleek Taiwanese Street Food Lounge Serves Beef Noodle Soup Until 2:30 a.m.The Stud, SF's Oldest Queer Bar, Gears Up for a Grand ReopeningMinnie Bell’s New Soul Food Restaurant in the Fillmore Is a HomecomingThe World Naked Bike Ride Is Happening on 4/20 in San FranciscoCalvin Keys, Widely Loved Jazz Guitarist With Endless Soul, Dies at 825 New Mysteries and Thrillers for Your Nightstand This SpringA Lowrider Cruise in Honor of Selena, the Queen of Tejano, in San FranciscoBest Bets for the 2024 Healdsburg Jazz FestivalThree Eye-Opening Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now