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Keeping track of lawsuits involving artworks, cultural property, artists’ estates, galleries, etc.

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From the December 2019 Newsletter

United States

Robert Owen Lehman Foundation, Inc. v Eva Zirkl et. al., No. E2019008883 (Monroe Cnty. Ct., filed Sept. 18, 2019). Egon Schiele’s drawing, “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife”, is now being taken to court to finally determine its ownership. The defendants in this lawsuit, Eva Zirkl, Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (IKG), Michael Bar, and Robert Rieger Trust have made two “separate and competing claims to ownership” of the drawing, both on the basis of former Austrian ancestral ownership and Nazi-looting of the art work. The Robert Owen Lehman Foundation was gifted this drawing in 2016 after Robert Owen Lehman purchased it in 1964. Lehman allegedly unsuccessfully attempted to achieve a fair and just resolution with the parties and now denies the defendants’ claims to ownership of the drawing. He asks the court to invalidate any challenges against his title to the painting. Complaint available here.

Gorton et al v. New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, No. 1:19-cv-09199 (S.D.N.Y. Oct 4, 2019). Two photographers who were formerly employed by the New York Times filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The photographers argue that the Department’s new exhibition “1978: The NYC Parks/ New York Times Photo Project” publicized their photographs to launch “massive marketing effort” without their permission. Complaint available here

U.S. v. Any Rights to Profits, Royalties And Distribution Proceeds Owned by or Owed to Jcl Media Emi Publishing Ltd. et. al., No. CV 16-05364-DSF-PLA (C.D. Cal. filed Oct. 30, 2019). Jho Low, a Malaysian financier and art collector, has reached a settlement with the United States Department of Justice over $700 million worth of assets, including artworks by Picasso, Basquiat, Arbus, Monet, and Van Gogh. These works were reportedly “pilfered” using Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Some of the works, given by Low as a gift to Leonardo DiCaprio, were handed over by the latter in 2017. Agreement available here

Guzzini Properties Ltd., v. “Untitled” by Rudolf Stingel, 2012, In Rem, No. 656467/2019 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cnty., filed 30 October 2019) An untitled painting of a photograph of Pablo Picasso, by Rudolf Stingel, now has a new ownership claim, made by Guzzini Properties Ltd. This artwork has been at the heart of the recent lawsuit involving Inigo Philbrick, where Aleksandar Pesko and Germany’s Fine Art Partners made competing ownership claims. Guzzini alleges that they bought the Stingel painting from Philbrick in 2017, paying full and fair market value, after which it was consigned to Christie’s. They allege that both the winning bidder Stellan Holm Gallery, and Pesko, who entered into a deal with Philbrick to buy a 50 percent share in the painting, never paid their full sums and therefore do not have ownership claims to the painting. Guzzini demands the return of the painting, whose title they argue remains vested in them. Complaint available here.

United States of America v. Kyriacou et. al., No. 1:18-cr-00102-KAM-7 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 20, 2019). Panayiotis “Peter” Kyriacou has pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to commit securities fraud. A former investment manager at Beaufort Securities, he allegedly conducted a stock trading and money laundering scheme which proposed the buying and re-selling of “Personnages” by Picasso, to “clean money” (approximately £6.7 million). This money would have been used to “clean up” for an undercover agent who was actually part of a “sting” by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. The sale was stopped by the FBI before any payment was made. Kyriacou faces a maximum of 10 years upon sentencing. Complaint available upon request.

U.S. v. Acoma Ceremonial Shield, No. 1:16-cv-00832-MV-JFR (D. N. M., filed 18 November 2019). After a years-long international struggle, a Native American shield has been returned to Acoma Pueblo. The shield, used in traditional ceremonies, had disappeared from an indigenous village in the 1970s. It later appeared at a Paris auction in 2016, prompting the campaign for its return. The 2016 complaint, filed by the United States of America, argued that the shield’s presence at the Paris auction indicated a violation of the Archeological Resources and Protection Act (16 U.S.C.§ 470ee(b)(2)), which prevents the removal or sale of an archaeological resource from public or Indian lands without a permit or in violation of any other federal law or state law. Judge Martha Vasquez granted a motion to dismiss a forfeiture case as the last formal step to the shield’s successful return. Documents available upon request. 

Davis v. Pinterest, Inc., No. 5:19-cv-07650 (N.D. Cal. Nov 19, 2019). Award-winning photographer Harold Davis sued Pinterest in San Francisco federal court for encouraging copyright infringement. The photographer alleged that the photo-sharing app promotes “a mechanism for people to violate the copyright rights of others” and “the wholesale, unauthorized copying of photographs” by its users. Complaint available here


UK | The Court in the UK refused to overturn the proposed Ivory Act (2018) despite attempts by the UK antiques trade to bring legal action. The Friends of Antique and Cultural Treasures Limited (“FACT”) had argued that the proposed Ivory Act was an excessively heavy measure to eradicate illegal trade in ivory. However, the Court concluded that the arguments and evidence presented by FACT would not have “materially” affected the outcome of the Act. Here

France | Pablo Picasso’s former electrician and his wife were given a two-year suspended jail sentence after the Court found they stole the artists’ works and concealed them for 40 years. The couple has claimed that the works, which valued at around €80m, were gifts. However, the court of appeal in Lyon after an investigation upheld the sentence and concluded that there is no existence of a gift and the couple actually stole the 271 works of Picasso including drawings, sketchbooks, lithographies, and Cubist constructions. Here.

Germany | Cosmo Wenman, an artist who has gone through difficulties in acquiring a 3D scan of the bust of Nefertiti, has won a three-year legal battle against a German museum. Now that the museum is required to publicly release the 3D scan, Wenman plans to continue his effort in making 3D scans available to the public by bringing other museums to court.

Denmark | Artist Tal R won his copyright battle against two Northern Germanic watch sellers, Dann Thorleifsson and Arne Leivsgard, for cutting up pieces of his painting “Paris Chic” (2017) to make a collection of luxury watches. Here.

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