Keeping track of lawsuits involving artworks, cultural property, artists’ estates, galleries, etc.
Last updated: May 29, 2020.
From the June 2020 Newsletter
Silvain v. Christie’s Inc., No. 5:20-cv-01608 (N.D. Cal. filed on Mar. 4, 2020). Christian Silvain, a self-taught artist based in Belgium, acquired proper copyright registration for a number of his artworks. But, Ye Yongqing, an artist based in China, made a number of paintings in a style identical, or at least very similar, to Silvain’s style. Christie’s auction house appraised, offered for sale, and sold Yongqing’s artworks that are known to infringe upon Silvain’s copyrighted artworks. Silvain has filed a complaint against Christie’s for contributing to the infringement of, or induced others to infringe Silvain’s copyrighted artworks. Silvain seeks to recover actual damages and profits made by Christie’s through the sale of Yongqing’s artworks. Silvain’s attorney reported that the parties are discussing a settlement.
Robert Blumenthal Gallery, L.L.C. v. Fordjour, No. 650795/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Feb. 4, 2020). In 2014, art collector and dealer Robert Blumenthal agreed to pay then up-and-coming artist Derek Fordjour $20,000, if Fordjour made him a fair deal. The final deal included fifteen paintings and five works on paper to be delivered over the course of five months. Blumenthal is now suing Fordjour, alleging that he has not delivered seven of the twenty pieces. Blumenthal seeks the remaining seven pieces or, alternatively, $1.45 million. In the motion to dismiss the complaint filed on May 5, 2020, Fordjour concedes that he has not delivered five of the pieces. But, Fordjour’s lawyer has reported, “This was a predatory relationship, and New York law protects artists against predatory practices by art dealers.”
Meyer v. Seidel, No. 2:19-cv-09786 (C.D. Cal. May 5, 2020). In late 2019, Universal Studios executive and art collector, Ron Meyer, sued art advisor Susan Seidel, in California state court. The suit stemmed from a 2001 transaction in which Meyer bought a Mark Rothko artwork from Seidel for about $1 million. Meyer kept the artwork until 2019 when he learned that it was not made by Rothko, but was made by the same artist involved in the Knoedler forgeries. On May 5, 2020, the Central District of California granted Seidel’s motion to transfer the case to the Southern District of New York. The transfer represented an initial victory for Seidel, as well as the idea that the forum in which a dispute is litigated must serve the interests of justice. In this case, a New York forum is more likely to serve the interests of justice than a California forum for numerous reasons, including that the Southern District of New York had a stronger public interest in adjudicating the dispute. The transfer here will likely provide guidance to other litigants seeking to transfer a case to a more appropriate forum.
Bich v. Bich, No. 2020-0359 (Del. Ch. filed May 12, 2020). Collector Bruno Bich alleges that his estranged wife, Veronique Bich, refuses to return more than 28 artworks from his family’s multimillion dollar collection. The artworks include Picasso’s 1937 “Portrait of Dora Maar”, Balthus canvases, Giacometti sculptures, and other blue-chip artworks belonging to a trust established by Bruno’s father, Marcel Bich, of which Veronique has never been a beneficiary. In spite of Bruno’s repeated requests, Veronique refuses to return the artworks, arguing that they will be subject to distribution in a separation agreement, which Veronique has sought since 2017. Bruno requests that the state declare the trust the rightful owner of the art and issue an injunction preventing Veronique from keeping, selling, or otherwise disposing of the art. Complaint available upon request.
United States v. One Cuneiform Tablet Known as the “Gilgamesh Dream Tablet”, No. 1:20-cv-02222 (E.D.N.Y. filed May 18, 2020). The United States has filed a civil complaint to forfeit an ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 1600 BC. The tablet was stolen from Iraq and imported into the United States in violation of federal law, which prohibits the sale of stolen antiquities and the importation of antiquities from Iraq after 1990. Law enforcement agents seized the tablet from the Museum of the Bible in September 2019, and the United States now intends to return the tablet to Iraq. The civil complaint reflects the mission of the Cultural Property, Arts and Antiquity Investigations program–a program under Homeland Security Investigations, New York– to combat the looting of antiquities and ensure that those involved in looting are held accountable. The civil complaint to forfeit implies serious wrongdoing on the part of dealers, antiquities experts, and prominent auction houses.
Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Christie’s Inc., No. 1:20-cv-02239 (E.D.N.Y. filed May 18, 2020). In 2014, Christie’s auction house sold an ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet bearing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 1600 BC, to Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. for display at the Museum of the Bible. Despite inquiries, Christie’s allegedly withheld information about the tablet’s provenance. In September 2019, law enforcement agents seized the tablet from the Museum in Washington, DC., claiming that the tablet was stolen from Iraq and imported into the United States in violation of federal law. Hobby Lobby is now suing Christie’s for fraud and breach of express and implied warranty. The suit claims that during the 2014 private sale, Christie’s assured Plaintiff that the consignor of the tablet was legally entitled to sell, though Christie’s allegedly knew that the tablet’s provenance was false.
Venus Over Manhattan Art, L.L.C. v. 980 Madison Owner, L.L.C., No. 1:20-cv-03838 (S.D.N.Y. filed May 18, 2020). Adam Lindemann, a New York investor and gallerist, is suing real estate mogul Aby Rosen to terminate a lease on 980 Madison Avenue in New York City. Lindemann claims that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he can no longer operate his gallery, Venus Over Manhattan, and that he should be excused from fulfilling his lease because of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order to close all non-essential businesses. Lindemann relies on the doctrines of frustration of purpose and impossibility of performance to justify his premature termination of his lease. Lindemann has withheld rent payments from April onward, and he now seeks return of his $365,000 security deposit and reimbursement of legal fees.
Steadfast Insurance Co. v. T.F. Nugent Inc., No. 1:20-cv-03959 (S.D.N.Y. filed May 21, 2020). In 2018, an employee of T.F. Nugent, which had been hired to paint Christie’s galleries ahead of an exhibition, left an extension rod for a paint roller leaning against a wall. The rod was not secured and fell, causing serious damage to Pablo Picasso’s 1943 self-portrait “Le Marin”, which was resting on foam pads against the wall in preparation for installation. The rod tore a four-and-a-half-inch hole in the canvas, diminishing its value by about $20 million. Casino mogul and art collector Steve Wynn then withdrew the canvas from auction. Now, Steadfast Insurance Co., the insurance company that reimbursed Christie’s after it paid Wynn, is suing the contractor it blames for the accident that damaged the portrait. Steadfast Insurance Co. seeks $18.4 million in damages and legal fees from T.F. Nugent, a family-run commercial painting business.
Attorney Neal Sher Files IRS Complaint Against Whitney Museum of American Art. Earlier this month, New York attorney Neal Sher filed a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) against the Whitney Museum of American Art. Sher sent the IRS a letter and an IRS Form 13909, a document for whistleblowers to report tax-exempt abuses. Sher seeks that the IRS revoke the Whitney’s nonprofit tax-exempt status on grounds that it allegedly “orchestrated and acquiesced in a concerted smear campaign” against its former vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, following reports of the use of tear gas produced by Kanders’s company, Safariland Group, against Palestinian civilians in Gaza and consequent protests. Sher now claims that the Whitney engaged in a “transparently political agenda which had no relevance whatsoever to [its] charitable purpose.” In addition, Sher claims that the Whitney made a mockery of the public policy principles underlying tax-exempt statuses.
Spain | Pilar Abel–a tarot card reader, fortune teller, and astrologist from Spain–filed a paternity suit in 2015, claiming that Salvador Dalí was her father. She sued the Spanish state and Dalí’s foundation, which inherited his estate when he died in 1989. In 2017, Abel won the right to exhume Dalí for hair, nail, teeth, and bone samples to be taken for a DNA test. The DNA results disproved her theory, and Abel filed an appeal claiming that the “chain of custody” in handling the remains had been interrupted. The court dismissed the appeal, and it ruled that Abel was liable for the costs of Dalí’s exhumation, estimated to be around €7,000 ($7,678).
UK | The UK Court of Appeals upheld the 2018 ban on ivory trading after ivory dealers tried to challenge the law. Antiquities traders the claim the Ivory Act should expand the narrow exceptions afforded to only some items that included minimal amounts of ivory. Currently the maximum percentage of ivory allowed in objects made before 1947 is just 10%, with other expectations applying to museums, which will still be able to acquire, own, and display objects made with ivory. Industry leaders will be able to take the case to the UK Supreme Court, but have expressed no upcoming plans to appeal the recent decision.
From the May 2020 Newsletter
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance has struck a deal with Christie’s, putting an end to an investigation into the auction house’s violations of the New York Tax Law and New York Penal Law. The latter will pay up to $10 million in fines to the State of New York for failing to collect New York and local sales tax between 2013 to 2017. Press Release available here.
Farrington v. InfoWars, LLC, No. 1:2020-cv-00332 (W.D. Tex. Mar. 26, 2020). Brooklyn photographer William Farrington is suing Alex Jones’ website InfoWars, alleging that the latter used, without permission or credit, a picture taken by Farrington depicting emergency medical technicians attempting to revive convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein after he committed suicide in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Farrington is claiming copyright infringement and his right to refrain others from using his work without consent. Complaint available upon request.
AM General LLC v. Activision Blizzard, Inc. et al., No. 1:2017-cv-08644 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2020). Video company and Call of Duty maker Activision has prevailed in the trademark dispute brought by AM General, the government contractor for the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (colloquially known as “Humvees”). New York federal judge ruled that Activision had a First Amendment right to depict contemporary warfare in its game, and that the use of the Humvees by the Defendant has some artistic relevance. Opinion available here.
Christie’s Inc. v. Turner et al., No. 1:20-cv-03146 (S.D.N.Y. filed on Ap. 20, 2020). In 2018, the Debra L. Turner entered into a consignment contract with Christie’s auction house for a work by Peter Paul Rubens, entitled “A Satyr holding a Basket of Grapes and Quinces with a Nymph.” The work was sold for nearly $6 million to Sean Parker, Facebook first President, but the consignor claimed she had withdrawn the painting from auction before its sale. On April 20, Christie’s filed a petition in Manhattan Federal Court to affirm an arbitrator’s ruling that Christie’s complied with its contractual obligations and that the successful bidder had lawfully acquired the painting. The Parker Foundation will keep the art piece and Turner will keep the proceeds.
Pindell v. N’Namdi et al., No. 1:2020-cv-00818 (S.D.N.Y. Ap. 21, 2020). Artist Howardena Pindell has filed a complaint in federal court against her former gallery, seven of its related entities, and a collector, accusing them of lying to her about sales of her works, failing to pay her, and refusing to return artworks upon her request. The complaint alleges replevin, conversion, and violation of various artist-gallery consignment statutes, including New York Art & Cultural Affairs Law and the Illinois Consignment of Art Act. Amended complaint dated April 2020 available upon request.
Morgan Art Found. Ltd. v. McKenzie et al., No. 1:18-cv-04438-AT (S.D.N.Y. filed on Ap. 27, 2020). In the ongoing legal dispute between the Morgan Art Foundation (“MAF”), which holds the copyright and trademark rights to all images and sculptures produced by late artist Robert Indiana, against his estate, his former art dealer Michael McKenzie and his company American Image Art (“AIA”), the latter filed an amended answer with counterclaims against MAF for what the defendants’ attorney is calling “one of the most massive art frauds in history.” The claims are based on the fact that Indiana’s LOVE was created before 1965, falling under the purview of the 1909 Copyright Act requiring authors to affix to his/her art a notice of Copyright prior to publication, or else the intellectual property rights would be abandoned. AIA is arguing that Indiana has failed to do so and that the LOVE sculpture is in the public domain, making the 1999 assignment to, and subsequent licensing by, MAF invalid. Amended answer available upon request.
France | The Paris Court of Appeals confirmed the lower court’s ruling that a company did not fail to care, preserve, and restore 121 bronze sculptures in their custody after they were vandalized. In particular, the court relied on the fact that the company would have had to spend half a million euros to restore the works, and said that “an author’s right of integrity does not justify ordering the owner of the tangible work to protect such work against change and to preserve it under unreasonable conditions.” CA Paris, March 10, 2020, No. 18/08248.
India | The Indian police charged a cyber-scammer who tried to list the world’s largest statue, the 600-foot-tall monument Statue of Unity located in India, for $4 million under the false pretense of raising funds for coronavirus relief.
From the April 2020 Newsletter
Tarducci v. Coates, No. 1:2020-cv-00069 (D. R.I. Feb. 11, 2020). Artist Mia Tarducci is suing gallery owner Kristen Coats for copyright infringement. Tarducci consigned several to her paintings to Coats’ Bellvue Gallery in Newport, RI in 2016. Later, Tarducci noticed very similar works for sale on Coates’ website, purporting to be Coate’s own work. The complaint was filed in February of 2020. Complaint available upon request.
The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC v. Sotheby’s, Inc., No. 1:20-cv-01841 (S.D.N.Y. filed on Mar. 2, 2020). The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC (“the Estate”) filed a complaint against Defendants Edward Meringolo and Sotheby’s, Inc. for replevin and conversion, demanding the return of a photograph by Ana Mendieta, titled Guanaroca – Esculturas Rupestras (“the Photograph”). After Mendieta’s death, her sister, Raquelin Mendieta, formed the Estate. Upon creating an inventory of the deceased’s artwork, Raquelin discovered that the Photograph was missing and that it had been consigned with Sotheby’s, Inc. by Meringolo without any documentary evidence that he was a good faith purchaser or that Ana Mendieta had gifted or sold the Photograph. The Estate is asking the Defendants to immediately return the Photograph to them, at the sole cost and expense of the Defendants, and also requests that Defendants pay reasonable attorney fees.
Zuckerman v. Metro. Museum of Art, 928 F.3d 186 (2nd Cir. 2019), petition for cert. denied (Mar. 3, 2020) (18-634). In the dispute over the ownership of Picasso’s “The Actor”, the Supreme Court refused to grant certiorari requested by the heirs of the Jewish owners of the painting, which is now in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The case was dismissed by the Second Circuit in 2019, based on the doctrine of latches, and the plaintiff petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the state doctrine of latches would trump the federal the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 (HEAR Act). Read our case review here. Petition for Writ Of Certiorari available here.
United States v. Righter, No. 2:220-cr-00131 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 10, 2020) and No. 1:2019-cr-20370 (S.D. FL. Mar. 16, 2020). Philip Righter has pled guilty to selling fake artworks by artists including Warhol, Basquiat, Haring, and Lichtenstein. Righter also used the works as collateral for loans on which he later defaulted. The total fraud damages are estimated at $6 million, in addition to $100,000 in lost government revenue as a result of falsely filed tax returns. Righter faces up to 25 years in prison, pursuant to his plea agreement with the Los Angeles Federal Court. The plea agreement is available here. Righter faces additional charges in Florida related to his illegal conduct while running a Florida Art Gallery. His plea agreement in Florida is pending.
In re PH8, Inc., No. 20-10809-smb (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. Mar. 16, 2020). Online auction house Paddle8 has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in New York, just one week after suit was brought against them by the nonprofit, New American Cinema Group. New American alleges that the online auction house failed to remit them the funds earned from a charity auction held last November. Paddle8’s creditors also include celebrities such as Justin and Haley Bieber, who claim that they are owed $73,000, and Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation, which claims to be owed $65,000.
Oliver v. Meow Wolf, Inc et al., No. 1:20-cv-00237-KK-SCY (D.N.M. Mar. 16, 2020). ArtistLauren Adele Oliver claims that her piece, Space Owl, helped Meow Wolf become a multi-million dollar enterprise, but that she hasn’t been properly credited or remunerated. Oliver alleges that the company promised her an “artist revenue share,” and she only received $2,000 for her work, which is less than the cost to produce and install the piece. Additionally, Oliver is also suing for copyright infringement after she asked the company not to use Space Owl for promotional purposes until an agreement was in place and, nevertheless, the company prominently featured Space Owl in a trailer for Meow Wolf’s self-made documentary.
Art Ask Agency v. Parties Identified on Schedule A, No. 1:20-cv-01666 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 18, 2020). The Northern Division of Eastern Illinois District Court denied Art Ask Agency’s motion for temporary restraining order against counterfeiters in China who are selling accessories with artist Anna Stokes’ licensed unicorn designs. Art Ask Agency’s claim was denied because it made no showing of an estimate of anticipated loss sales due to the counterfeit. Order available here.
Robert Blumenthal Gallery, LLC v. Derek Fordjour, No. 650795/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed on Mar. 19, 2020). In the lawsuit brought by art dealer Robert Blumenthal against artist Derek Fordjour, based on Plaintiff’s allegations that the artist has failed to deliver commissioned artworks, Defendant has filed a motion for summary judgment. Defendant’s filings also demand that all the works he allegedly gave to Blumenthal on consignment now be returned. Complaint available here and motion available upon request.
Allen v. Cooper, No. 18-877, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 1909 (Mar. 23, 2020). The United States Supreme Court has held that videographer Frederick Allen may not bring suit against the state of North Carolina for unauthorized use of his copyrighted material. In 1996, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, flagship of the infamous pirate Blackbeard, was discovered off the coast of Beaufort, North Carolina. The state of North Carolina used Allen’s copyrighted photos and videos of the efforts to recover the ship on their website without his permission. With this decision, the Supreme Court has confirmed that states have sovereign immunity and cannot be sued based on federal copyright claims. The opinion is available here.
Solid Oak Sketches, LLC v. Visual Concepts, LLC et al, No. 1:16-cv-00724 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2020). In 2016, tattoo company Solid Oak Sketches (“Plaintiff”) sued Take-Two Interactive (“Defendants”), a video game publisher, for unauthorized reproduction of its tattoo designs on LeBron James and two other NBA players. The Southern District Court of New York held that Defendants’ use of the Tattoos in the challenged versions of their video game is de minimis and fair use and therefore does not infringe Plaintiff’s copyrights. The court also noted that “tattooists necessarily granted the Players nonexclusive licenses to use the Tattoos as part of their likenesses.” Decision available here.
Brazil | Brazilian collector and mining company owner, Bernardo Paz, has been cleared of money laundering charges under the federal appeals court in Brazil. In 2017, Paz was sentenced to jail for nine years and three months for money laundering related to the Instituto Inhotim, which was a museum and sculpture park founded by Paz in 2006. Paz allegedly used $98.5 million in funds deposited to Horizonte, a company which was set up to benefit the nonprofit Instituto Inhotim, to pay for the expenses and debts related to Paz’s mining business, rather than support the museum. Paz has been acquitted of all charges.
India | The Instagram account @HerdSceneAnd has taken a stand against sexual harassment in the Indian art world by publishing anonymous accusations that artist Subodh Gupta and several other prominent men in the south Asia art scene have sexually harassed women. Gupta sued the Instagram account for defamation, raising concerns from Google, Facebook, and the Indian Journalist Union, who argued that this case would have a chilling effect on free speech in India. Although the parties settled outside of court, the Indian court allowed @HerdSceneAnd to keep up the posts and the account is still active.
From the March 2020 Newsletter
Oliver v. Boone et al., No. 1:2020-cv-00332 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 14, 2020). New York Art dealer, Mary Boone, is facing a lawsuit brought by her former associate, James Oliver. Last Spring, Boone was sentenced to 30 months in prison for filing false tax returns and using $1.16 million in gallery funds for personal expenses. The suit filed by Oliver on January 14, 2020 in the Southern District of New York, alleges that Oliver is due unpaid wages and that Boone “misappropriated” funds from $10 million in art sales. Oliver claims the Boone instructed buyers to transfer money directly into her personal account and that he did not receive the 10% share of the profits to which he was entitled as part-owner of the gallery. Complaint available upon request.
Morgan Art Foundation Limited, et al. v. Brannan, No. 18-CV-8231, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14043 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2020). The Southern District of New York dismissed four claims made by James W. Brannan, personal representative of Robert Indiana’s estate, against the Morgan Art Foundation (“MAF”). MAF provided the court with two agreements with Indiana, which proved that the artist gave the Foundation copyright and trademark rights to all images and sculptures Indiana produced between 1960 and 2004, including the iconic LOVE and HOPE sculptures. Opinion available here.
Robert Blumenthal Gallery, LLC v. Derek Fordjour, No. 650795/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Feb. 4, 2020). Art dealer Robert Blumenthal has filed suit against the artist Derek Fordjour, claiming that 6 years ago, he prepaid $20,000 for 20 of the artist’s works but only received 13 of them. The artist has skyrocketed in popularity in the intervening years, with his work selling for up to $169,293. Blumenthal, who paid $1,000 per painting, is seeking $1.45 million in damages, alleging breach of contract and unjust enrichment. Complaint available here.
BoxNic Anstalt v. Gallerie Degli Uffizi, No. CV-18-1263-PHX-DGC, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18761, 2020 WL 570945 (D. Ariz. Feb. 5, 2020). The Arizona District Court has ruled that third parties are not allowed to use the Uffizi Gallery’s name in their domain names. The defendant, BoxNic Anstalt, was using such sites including Uffizi.com and Uffizi.net, to confuse visitors into believing that they were visiting the official museum website and into buying tickets at inflated prices. Decision available upon request.
Silver v. Alon Zakaim Fine Art Ltd., NY Slip Op 00978 (N.Y. App. Div. Feb. 11, 2020). The First Appellate Division of New York upheld a ruling in favor of Rick Silver, as he sought the return of Marc Chagall’s “Bouquet de Giroflees” from a group of London galleries. Silver alleged that, after the painting was purchased from the Chowaiki & Co. Gallery, the gallery’s owner, Ezra Chowaiki, fraudulently induced Silver to consign the painting back to the gallery. Silver alleged that Chowaiki then consigned the work to others, used the painting as collateral, and sold shares in the painting to the aforementioned London Galleries without Silver’s consent and without sharing the proceeds. Silver further asserts that subsequent buyers of shares in the painting are not bona fide purchasers for value, as they did not carry out even basic measures to ascertain if the painting was available for sale, such as performing a UCC Lien Search. The Appellate Division dismissed jurisdictional issues and allegations that there were not sufficient “red flags” to warn the galleries about liens on the piece, increasing the likelihood that the painting will eventually be returned to Silver. Decision available upon request.
Meaders v. Helwaser, No. 1:2018cv05039 (S.D.N.Y. 2020). A judge has resolved a dispute over a sculpture by Alexander Calder, originally gifted to his lawyer, Paul L. Meaders, Jr. The sculpture passed to his wife, Jane, upon Mr. Meaders death. Upon Jane’s death, her son (Paul Meaders III) was named as executor to the estate, while Jane’s tangible property passed to both her son and her daughter,Phyliss. After their mother’s death in 2001, Paul took possession of the sculpture and sold it to Helwaser Gallery in 2016. Phyliss contested the sale, which she believed she had the right to do as part owner. Summary judgment was granted on the grounds that Phyliss had not sufficiently established that she was part owner of the work. Decision available upon request.
Castillo v. G&M Realty L.P., Nos. 18-498-cv (L), 18-538-cv (CON), 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 5228 (2d Cir. Feb. 20, 2020). Putting an end to a 7-year long dispute over the whitewashing of the Long Island City-based “graffiti mecca” known as 5Pointz, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld Hon. Frederick Block’s February 2018 ruling for the District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Judge Block awarded $6.75 million in statutory damages to 21 aerosol artists whose works were destroyed without prior notice by the owner of the building where the artists had been authorized to create for a decade. Read our case review here.
France | Artist and Russian dissident, Pyotr Pavlensky, has released a pornographic video that he claims features French politician Benjamin Griveaux, who was running for the office of mayor of Paris. Pavlensky claims that he plans to create a “political porn” website to expose “political hypocrisy.” Pavlensky and his partner, Alexandra de Taddeo, have been indicted on charges of “invasion of privacy” and “dissemination without the consent of the person [involved] of sexual images,” Griveaux has since dropped out of the mayoral race.
France | A recent French Supreme Court ruling upheld an archaic 19-century law where any woman who bares her breast in public, regardless of her motivation––political, artistic or otherwise–– can be charged with “sexual exhibitionism.” On February 26, 2020, the court overturned the Paris Court of Appeals’ decision and confirmed Iana Zhdanova’s charge of sexual exhibition after she led a “Femen” topless protest performance at a museum in Paris. C. Cass, Arrêt n°35 du 26 février 2020 (19-81.827), available here (French).
Germany | A German court dismissed a complaint against the German government-run database of Nazi-looted art, lostart.de. The court held the current possessor of a work cannot prevent claimants from listing works in the database, as the listing does not constitute the assertion of a claim of ownership. This decision comes in response to a suit by Wolfgang Peiffer, who unknowingly bought a painting which had been sold under duress by the Jewish art dealer Max Stern when he was forced to flee Germany.
Germany | Local Jewish committee member, Michael Düllman, brought an action against St. Mary’s Church in Wittenburg, Germany, seeking removal of “Judensau” from the church’s wall. The 700-year old sculpture carved into the wall depicts a rabbi lifting a sow’s tail to peer at its behind while Jewish children suckle on a pig’s teat. Düllman claimed “Judensau” is “defamatory” and “an insult to the Jewish people.” On February 4, 2020, a German court ruled that “Judensau” did not constitute an offense and may remain there. Düllman will appeal his case in Germany’s Federal Court of Justice and said he was prepared to take his claim to the European Court of Human Rights.
Spain| Spanish billionaire Jaime Botín, grandson of the founder of Santander SA Bank, has been sentenced by a Spanish Judge to 3 years in prison and fined $101 million dollars. The sentence was revised from the original 18 months in prison and a $58 million fine. In 2015, Picasso’s “Head of a Young Woman” was seized from Botin’s yacht off the coast of France. Botin removed the painting from Spain, despite an administrative ban forbidding him from taking it out of the country.
From the February 2020 Newsletter
Philipp et al. v. Federal Republic of Germany et al., 894 F.3d 406 (D. D.C. 2018). The U.S. Supreme Court has delayed its decision on whether to hear an appeal brought by German state museums regarding the proper ownership of the Guelph Treasure, which is estimated to be worth at least €200 million. The treasure is claimed by the descendants of a group of Jewish art dealers in Germany, who transferred the works in 1935 to a Nazi-controlled bank for a fraction of their worth in a “genocidal taking” during the Holocaust. The Guelph Treasure is currently in Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum, which claims that there had been no forced transaction and that the Treasure should remain at the Berlin museum. The case was brought in the U.S., based on the defendant’s commercial activity within the U.S., to which the defendants replied that, as a foreign state agency, it cannot be sued in United States courts, in accordance with the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The case was nonetheless heard in the district court of the United States. In the appeal to the Supreme Court, the defendants argued that the lower court’s ruling “dramatically expanded the jurisdiction of U.S. courts to hear claims against foreign nations for alleged human rights violations that occurred entirely abroad.” Consequently, the U.S. Supreme Court delayed its decision on whether to hear the appeal. Petition for Writ Of Certiorari available here.
Munro v. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Inc. et al, No. 1:2020cv20079 (S.D. Fla. Jan. 1, 2020). U.K. artist Bruce Munro filed suit against the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens in Miami for copyright infringement. Munro claims that the Garden’s holiday illuminations, supplied by the Chinese company G-Light, represented “intentional copying” of his immersive light installation “Forest of Light,” which was displayed at Longwood Gardens in the U.K. in 2012. Complaint available upon request.
Clark v. Castor and Pollux L.L.C., 2019 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 1638 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2020). Artist Lala Abaddon has been awarded $266,500 in a dispute with the owners of the now-closed Castor Gallery. In April 2019, Abaddon brought suit under N.Y. Arts & Cult. Aff. § 12.01, after the gallery owners refused to pay for her sold works and threatened to burn her unsold works. The owners claimed that they were owed for the costs of organizing the artist’s show. Decision available upon request.
Zuckerman v. Metro. Museum of Art, 928 F.3d 186 (S.D.N.Y. 2019), petition for cert. filed (Jan. 24, 2020) (18-634). Laura Zuckerman has filed a petition for certiorari, requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court evaluate the legal ownership of Picasso’s the “Actor,” currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zuckerman, is the great grand-niece of the Jewish owners of the painting (the Leffmanns) who sold the piece in 1937. The Leffmanns sold “the Actor” at a reduced price, in order to finance their flight from Italy to Switzerland. The Metropolitan Museum asserts that the family had waited too long to assert their rights, whereas the plaintiff claims that a six-year statute of limitations applies, per the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 (HEAR Act). The case was dismissed by the Second Circuit, based on the doctrine of latches, and the plaintiff now petitions the U.S. Supreme Court to review whether the state doctrine of latches would trump the federal HEAR Act. Read our case review here. Petition for Writ Of Certiorari available here.
Sweet Cicely Daniher v. Rae et al., No. 5:20-cv-00612-NC (Cal. N.D. filed Jan. 27, 2020). San Francisco artist Sweet Cicely Daniher is suing Pixar, Disney, and producer Kori Rae for copyright infringement, alleging the defendants copied her “tremendously cool” van featuring a unicorn in the upcoming animated movie, Onwards. The plaintiff had previously rented her “Vanicorn” to the defendants, only to find out that they designed a similar-looking version for the movie, replacing the unicorn with a Pegasus. The artist claims the producer called her to apologize for the theft, but only after they had already made merchandise and toys featuring the van. She is claiming damages that will largely depend on the revenue from the film. Complaint available upon request.
Tananbaum v. Gagosian Gallery, Inc. et al., No. 651889/2018 (NY Sup. Ct.). The lawsuit brought by collector Steve Tananbaum against the Gagosian Gallery over the delayed delivery of three sculptures by Jeff Koons has been settled. In August 2019, a New York state supreme court judge had ruled against the defendant’s motion to dismiss based on Gagosian’s breach of contract and the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law.
Guzzini Properties Ltd., v. “Untitled by Rudolf Stingel, 2012,” in Rem, No. 656467/2019 (NY Sup. Ct. filed Jan. 31, 2020). In October 2019, the art-collecting entity Guzzini filed a lawsuit against Inigo Philbrick for the return of a portrait of Pablo Picasso by Rudolf Stingel, alleging that Philbrick had consigned the work without the Plaintiffs’ consent or knowledge. In late January 2020, collector Andre Sakhai has submitted an affidavit as part of that lawsuit, claiming that he entered into a deal with Philbrick to buy a Wade Guyton work, and that, similar to Guzzini’s claims, he later discovered the dealer had sold the work without his knowledge. Sakhai is seeking to intervene in the lawsuit and to temporarily restrain the disposition of the work. Affidavit and memorandum of law available here or upon request.
Germany | Angela Gulbenkian has been accused of fraudulent art dealing and now has two criminal and civil charges pending against her. The first complaint was filed in March 2018 in the U.K., when Mathieu Ticolat claimed to have paid $1.4 million for a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin sculpture that was never delivered. The second complaint was filed in January 2020 in Munich, Germany on behalf of an anonymous London art dealer who sold and delivered an Andy Warhol “Queen Elizabeth II” print for $151,000 to Gulbenkian, who failed to pay the art dealer. The U.K. trial against Gulbenkian’s art dealing is scheduled for March 2020 and the German trial is scheduled for May 2020.
India | Subodh Gupta, a leading Indian artist, filed a defamation case in Delhi High Court against the Instagram account @herdsceneand, requesting posts regarding sexual harassment allegations against him to be taken down and seeking approximately £500,000 in damages to his reputation and career. The Delhi High Court ordered Google and Instagram to remove a number of URLs and posts relating to the defamatory content against Gupta, which garnered significant attention in the international press because many viewed this decision to be a violation of freedom of speech and information laws under the Indian constitution. The court ruled that whether @herdsceneand will be allowed to maintain their anonymity will be decided at a later date.
Netherlands | A lawsuit has been filed by descendants of a Jewish art collector seeking the restitution of Wassily Kandinsky’s “Painting with Houses (Bild mit Häusern)” (1909) from a museum owned by the city of Amsterdam. The heirs contest the Netherlands’ Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Applications’ finding that there was no evidence that the painting, purchased by the museum in 1940 for the equivalent of €1,400, was sold under duress during the Nazi occupation.
Spain | Jaime Botin, heir to Santander Bank, was sentenced to 18 months in prison and fined €52.4 million. Botin attempted to remove Picasso’s “Head of a Young Woman” from Spain on his yacht. This was in violation of Spain’s heritage laws, which require permits for exporting ‘national treasures’ which are more than 100 years old.
UK | The Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede, the Netherlands, is suing art dealer Simon Dickinson before London courts after hackers infiltrated a sales deal between the parties and convinced the Museum to transfer $3.1 million into a Hong Kong bank account. The Museum argued that the dealer was negligent in preventing the fraud and that his team was “aware of emails between the museum and the hackers, but did nothing to stop the transaction.” The court has rejected the negligence claim but allowed the Museum to amend its claims. Ownership of the painting, John Constable’s “A View of Hampstead Heath: Child’s Hill, Harrow in the Distance” (1824) is still undecided.
From the January 2020 Newsletter
State v. Roderick Webber, No. B-19-031881 (Fla. DDC. filed Dec. 10, 2019). After performance artist David Detuna ate Maurizio Cattelan’s banana at Art Basel Miami in December 2019, Roderick Webber used the empty space to scribble the words “EPSTIEN [sic] DIDNT KILL HIMSELF.” He is now is defending himself in court against charges of vandalism brought by the Miami DA’s office. A trial is scheduled for February 27, 2020. Reportedly, the gallery will not press charges.
Benton et al, v. UMB Bank, No. to be confirmed (Mo. Jackson Cty Ct. filed Dec. 17, 2019). The estate of painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) is suing Kansas City’s UMB Bank in Federal court, for allegedly mismanaging the estate, underselling artworks, and breaching their duties of care. The family is asking for the bank’s removal as trustee and for $1 million in damages, plus legal fees.
Edelman Arts v. New York Art World, LLC, No. 652017/2018 (N.Y. Sup. Ct, Dec. 20, 2019). A New York Supreme Court judge ruled that Edelman Arts, owned by collector and financier Asher Edelman, must pay an invoice––which they claimed to be canceled––for a $5 million Keith Haring. According to Pryor Cashman, the firm that represented the gallery, the decision highlights “that art dealers are subject to liability when they agree to purchase an artwork in their own name” and that buyer’s remorse does not suffice to cancel a sale. Decision available upon request.
Belgium | Igor and Olga Toporovsky, the couple who lent numerous fakes supposedly by Russian avant-garde artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich to the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, have been arrested in Belgium. They face charges of money-laundering and fraud.
France | Jeff Koons and the Centre Pompidou in Paris are liable for copyright infringement regarding Koons’ sculpture “Naked,” which was found to be similar to a photography by Jean-Francois Bauret. The Paris court of appeals upheld and confirmed the lower court’s finding that this amounted to plagiarism. CA Paris, 17 décembre 2019, RG 17/09695.
France | A French court of appeals ruled that a fax message sent by an interested buyer to an auctioneer was sufficient to express the former’s intention to purchase. While the buyer contested the sale because he did not formally express the purchase order, the judges relied on a series of factors, including that the buyer had been contacted during the auction, that he was the highest bidder, and that he did not contest the sale for more than 2 years. CA Rennes, 22 octobre 2019, RG 16/08134.
Monaco | Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier was cleared of the criminal charges of fraud and money laundering pending against him in a Monaco court. This is one of many lawsuits brought by Russian oligarch Dmitri Rybolovlev who alleges that Bouvier defrauded him of $1 billion over the course of 38 deals, by misrepresenting the purchase price of artworks. He is still claiming redress in the US, London, Paris, and Geneva. Bouvier’s lawyers stated that “all investigations were conducted in a biased and unfair way without the defendant being in a position to retrospectively redress these serious anomalies that permanently compromised the balance of rights of the parties.”
Poland | Art historian Tomasz Kitliński is being sued for defamation by Polish governor and incoming parliamentary representative Przemysław Czarnek. Kitliński had commissioned the artist Dorota Nieznalska to create the installation Judenfrei that refers to the Nazi term for areas “cleansed” of Jews. Czarnek publically dismissed Judenfrei as being anti-Polish and demanded its removal. Kitliński stood his ground and posted a protest letter online that started: “The governor of Lublin Region prides himself in offending Ukrainians, Muslims, the LGBT community and women, for whom he sees no social role other than the reproduction of children.” Under Polish criminal law, Kitliński may face a two-year prison sentence for slandering a public official.
UK | After Picasso’s “Bust of a Woman” (1944), the portrait of his muse Dora Maar, was defaced at the Tate Modern, authorities apprehended Shakeel Ryan Massey who is denying the charges and is scheduled to appear for a pre-trial hearing at the end of January.
UK | Sotheby’s has settled the case over a forged Frans Hals painting, “Portrait of a Gentleman,” which the auction house had sold privately before suspecting it was a fake and repaid its buyer. The consignor, art dealer Mark Weiss, will reimburse Sotheby’s for the lost sale. The High Court did not weigh in on the authenticity of the painting.