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United States

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 ostensibly infringe Silvain’s copyrighted artworks. Silvain has filed a complaint against Christie’s for contributing to the infringement of—or inducing 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. FordjourNo. 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, “[t]his was a predatory relationship, and New York law protects artists against predatory practices by art dealers.”

Meyer v. SeidelNo. 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 created 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 concept 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 in this case 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). CollectorBruno 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. Despite 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, D.C., 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, although 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 for the paint roller 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.

Noland v. JanssenNo. 1:17-cv-05452 (S.D.N.Y. June 1, 2020). The Southern District of New York has dismissed artist Cady Noland’s complaint regarding her Log Cabin Blank With Screw Eyes and Café Door (1990). Initiated in 2017, Noland’s suit argued that she authored a derivative work when she permitted a Defendant to stain and restore Log Cabin, located in Germany, sometime after VARA’s effective date and that the derivative work was entitled to copyright and VARA protection. In 2018, the suit was dismissed for failure to offer a basis for extraterritorial application of the copyright laws but allowing the artist to file an amended complaint. In June 2020, the court granted’s Defendants motion to dismiss the artist’s third amended complaint by establishing that Noland could not make out a claim for violation of her VARA rights in the United States or for copyright infringement. The Court explained that the derivative work would not terminate Noland’s copyright in her initial work. But, the Court held that Noland could not grandfather Log Cabin into VARA coverage through the derivative work because she was not its author. As for Noland’s claim of copyright infringement, the Court assumed that Log Cabin was entitled to copyright protection, but held that Defendant’s dissemination of photographs and plans in furtherance of Log Cabin’s sale constituted fair use.

International

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 it affords to items that include minimal amounts of ivory. Currently, the maximum percentage of ivory allowed in objects made before 1947 is just 10%, with other standards applying to museums, which will still be allowed 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.