Keeping track of lawsuits involving artworks, cultural property, artists’ estates, galleries, etc.
Last updated: March 1, 2021.
From the March 2021 Newsletter
Rappoport v. Nye & Co., No. 653166/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed July 22, 2020). Controversy erupted over the sale of an early work of Rembrandt van Rijn—Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell)—to the collector Thomas Kaplan (“Kaplan”). The painting was first sold to Nye & Company in Bloomfield, New Jersey in 2015 and then to a Paris gallery, Talabardon & Gautier, for $870,000—before Kaplan acquired it (reportedly for $4 million). Jay Rappoport (“Rappoport”), who is part of the family that sold the Painting to Nye & Co Auctioneers, filed a lawsuit in July 2020 in New York State Supreme Court contending that the bidders at the auction, his family members, as well as Kaplan and the Leiden Collection (Kaplan’s collection), were part of a conspiracy to steal the painting and sell it at auction without his knowledge or consent. The case is ongoing and the latest filing was a memorandum from Rappoport, requesting amendments to the briefing schedule.
Accent Delight Int’l Ltd. v. Sotheby’s, No. 1:18-cv-09011 (S.D.N.Y. 2020) (order denying motion to compel production). Plaintiffs Accent Delight International Ltd. and Xitrans Finance Ltd. accuse Sotheby’s of participating in an alleged defrauding scheme. Plaintiffs accuse Sotheby’s and Yves Bouvier of defrauding them out of $1 billion when they purchased an art collection that included Leonardo da Vinci’s Christ as Salvator Mundi. The latest development concerns Plaintiff’s motion to compel production of mediation documents, including communications between Sotheby’s counsel and counsel for the sellers of the da Vinci, as well as communications between Sotheby’s counsel and the mediator. The court denied Plaintiffs’ motion, holding that a heightened standard of showing special need for the materials applies to private mediations and that Plaintiffs did not meet that standard here.
State of Washington v. Fairweather, No. 2:21-cv-00002 (W.D. Wash. filed Jan. 4, 2021). The District Court for the Western District of Washington granted a preliminary injunction in early February to prevent the sale of the National Archives in Seattle. The Washington state Attorney General’s office filed suit along with 29 indigenous tribes to stop the sale of the archives, which holds millions of boxes of documents, including histories of 272 federally recognized tribes in Washington, Alaska, Oregon and Idaho, as well as all federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest. Plaintiffs’ attorneys hoped the sale process would stop under the new presidential administration.
Meyer v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Okla., No. 5:15-cv-00403 (W.D. Okla. Jan. 4, 2021). A Camille Pissarro painting—La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep)—currently on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is back at the center of a lawsuit between Léone-Noëlle Meyer (“Meyer”), whose family perished in the Holocaust, and Oklahoma University’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (the “Oklahoma Museum”). Meyer claims she sold the painting under duress in 2016 in an agreement specifying that the Oklahoma Museum and the Musée d’Orsay would share ownership of the painting and alternate possession on a three-year basis (the painting is scheduled to return to Oklahoma in July 2021). As part of her claim before the District Court of Paris, Meyer alleges that a 1945 French law requiring restitution of art works stolen by the Nazis supersedes the 2016 agreement, and therefore, full ownership of the painting should revert to her. While Meyer pursues her claim in France, the District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma has simultaneously held her in contempt of court. The court ordered Meyer to stop the French proceedings in November 2020, and because she has not complied, the court requested that defendants submit a recommendation for sanctions. The Defendants recommended that Meyer pay a $3.65 million civil monetary sanction and up to $100,000 a day in penalties for contempt of court if she does not cease pursuit of her claim in France.
Edelman Arts, Inc. v. Spoelstra, No. 1:17-cv-04789 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 11, 2021). This breach of contract claim began in March 2017 when the plaintiff, art dealer Asher Edelman, filed suit against Remko Spoelstra, Jason Holloway, SSR Invest Switzerland, and Swiss Business Council for failing to transfer payment for four Keith Haring artworks and an Edvard Munch painting. The list of defendants also included the intended recipient of the art, who is a powerful person in Abu Dhabi. Judge John G. Koeltl found for the plaintiff and directed the matter to a magistrate judge to provide a report and recommendation on the matter of damages. The magistrate judge, after considering additional evidence submitted in June 2020, awarded Edelman $6.9 million in damages. The final damages award includes lost commissions for Edelman (20% of the total sales price), lost profits on one of the Haring artworks, and interest accrued. On February 16, Judge John G. Koeltl directed the plaintiff to serve the magistrate judge’s damages report and recommendation on the defendants.
Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Christie’s Inc., No. 1:20-cv-02239 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2021). A recent lawsuit involving an ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh (“Gilgamesh Tablet” or the “Tablet”) continues with Hobby Lobby Stores’s (“Hobby Lobby”) latest amended complaint filing. Hobby Lobby has been actively building an antiquities collection for a new Washington, DC museum, the Museum of the Bible. As part of that effort, Hobby Lobby purchased the Gilgamesh Tablet from Christie’s in 2014 for $1,674,000. The court disputes began in May 2020, when the U.S. Attorney General’s office for the Eastern District of New York filed a civil forfeiture action claiming the Tablet was stolen from Iraq and illegally imported into the U.S. by Christie’s in 2014. Hobby Lobby filed their complaint against Christie’s the next day, on May 19, 2020, alleging fraud and breach of express and implied warranty—stating that Christie’s knew the Tablet was illegally imported when they sold it to Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby now identifies Joseph David Hackmey (“Hackmey”), an Israeli art collector, as the seller of the Tablet, with Christie’s acting as Hackmey’s agent. Hobby Lobby now also alleges that Christie’s fraudulently sold it a 10th Century Gospels manuscript that was looted from the Greek Orthodox Monastery, which the Museum of the Bible is preparing to return to Greece.
Federal Republic of Germany v. Philipp, No. 19-351, slip op. at 1 (U.S. Feb. 3, 2021). The Supreme Court sided with Germany, vacating and remanding a Nazi restitution claim case. The suit centers on a collection of medieval relics known as the Welfenschatz, worth about $224.45 million. Heirs of German Jewish art dealers alleged that the forced sale of the collection in 1935 qualifies under the expropriation exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) because the property was “taken in violation of international law” (28 U.S.C. § 1605(a)(3) 2018). Germany countered that they are immune from suit under the FSIA because Germany’s taking of its own nationals’ property does not fall under the exception. The heirs argued that the forced sale is an act of genocide and, therefore, the collection was taken in violation of international human rights law. The Supreme Court, concerned with opening U.S. courts up to similar World War II era claims, held that the FSIA’s expropriation exception references violations of the international law of expropriation (not violations of international human rights law), which does not include a country’s taking from its own citizens. The Supreme Court remanded, instructing the District Court to consider an alternative argument by the heirs that the art dealers were not subject to the domestic takings rule because they were not German citizens at the time of the sale.
Cyprus | In December 2020, a court in Cyprus issued an order freezing €267 million worth of assets belonging to Alexei and Dmitry Ananyev (the “Ananyev brothers”) and their wives. The Ananyev brothers are Russian art collectors and bankers who have been accused of embezzling about $1.6 billion from their former bank, Promsvyazbank. When new management took over Promsvyazbank, they revealed that artwork had gone missing from the Institute of Russian Realist Art, the museum holding Alexei Ananyev’s private collection. In November 2019, a trove of hundreds of missing paintings and rare books was found in a storage facility in Moscow. Around the same time, several journalists claimed that some of the art was transferred to a Cypriot company tied to Ananyev’s family.
France | An administrative court in Montpellier, France ruled that Louis Aliot (“Aliot”), mayor of Perpignan, order the closure of four museums. Hyacinthe-Rigaud art museum, the Casal Pairal Museum of Catalan Art, the National History Museum, and the Joseph Puig coin museum. Aliot had opened these museums in early February, in defiance of President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that France’s museums would remain closed. The court ruled that Aliot’s order could not supersede the authority of President Macron. French cultural institution leaders have become increasingly frustrated with the strict closure policies and issued an open letter to France’s Minister of Culture in early February 2021, pleading for an opportunity to reopen.
France | A French appeals court upheld a decision finding the artist Jeff Koons (“Koons”) and the Centre Pompidou in Paris guilty of copyright infringement. The photographer Plaintiff, Franck Davidovici (“Davidovici”), sued Koons, alleging that Koons used Davidovici’s advertisement image (taken for the French clothing brand Naf Naf) to create his sculpture Fait d’hiver. The appeals court increased the damages award for Davidovici; the Centre Pompidou and Koons must now pay €190,000 ($230,400) and, if they continue to feature images of the work online, they will owe an additional €600 ($700) per day.
Italy | Gabriele Seno (“Seno”), an Italian art dealer, was found guilty of attempting to sell a forged Josef Albers painting and sentenced to a one year and eight month (suspended) prison sentence. The Court in Milan also fined Seno €4,000 ($4,800). Seno attempted to sell the painting, Study for Homage to the Square, for €320,000 ($387,000). Josef Albers is known for his squares in squares paintings, which the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation has said are often forged but are recognizable counterfeits due to the artist’s signature and the paint application technique. Seno claimed he inherited the painting from his father and that the certificate of authenticity was lost. He is appealing the ruling.
Mexico | A division of the Mexican government, The National Institute of Anthropology and History (the “National Institute”), filed a claim with the attorney general’s office in Mexico seeking the return of thirty three pre-Columbian objects, prior to their auction at Christie’s in Paris. The group of objects, which included three fakes according to the National Institute, included sculptures, vessels, masks, plates, and figures from cultures originating in Mexico. In their claim, the National Institute called on Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Relations to assist with repatriation efforts. On February 9, 2021, Christie’s went forward with the sale, which yielded €2.5 million ($3 million), claiming that the items were legitimately sold.
Switzerland | The Geneva prosecutor’s office has confirmed it will end criminal proceedings against art dealer Yves Bouvier. This is one of the latest developments in a multi-year, international dispute between Bouvier and Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev accused Bouvier of defrauding him out of $1 billion in an agreement to purchase artworks, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. There will be no indictment in Switzerland, but there are still ongoing proceedings in the U.S, the UK, and France.
From the February 2021 Newsletter
U.S. v. Dere, No. 1:20-cr-00501 (S.D.N.Y. filed on Sept. 15, 2020). Following his September 2020 arrest, art dealer Erdal Dere has been charged with aggravated identity theft for using the names of deceased collectors as the previous owners of antiquities. By falsifying prior owners, the government alleges Mr. Dere has hidden suspicious ownership histories and lied to buyers. The court has issued a Protective Order regarding required procedures for handling confidential information and a status conference has been scheduled for March 15, 2021.
Vision Makers Inc. et al. v. The Bridgeman Art Library Limited, No. 1:20-cv-09964 (S.D.N.Y. filed Nov. 25, 2020). This case, brought by professional photographers against Christie’s and other licensing entities, “concerns the blatant appropriation and infringement of an extraordinary copyrighted lithograph of the great boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali”, according to the complained filed in federal court in November 2020. In 1980, Plaintiff Haney captured a still photograph of Ali and, along with Plaintiff Rogers (a former attorney and judge, and currently a professional photographer), created an original lithographic poster. Despite multiple notices from Plaintiffs, Bridgeman Art allegedly acquired unauthorized reproductions of the work from Christie’s and have been displaying them online, without proper attribution or permission, since 2018.
Xiaoqian Gu v. Lehmann-Maupin L.L.C., No. 657157/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Dec. 21, 2020). Ms. Xiaoqian Gu (“Ms. Gu”), a resident of Hong Kong, has sued Lehmann-Maupin, a modern art gallery located in New York City (“the Gallery”) for breach of contract. The complaint alleges that the Gallery committed a breach of contract when it refused to deliver an artwork that Ms. Gu purchased. Ms. Gu claims a binding sales contract was created when, in an email exchange, the Gallery offered Ms. Gu the option to purchase the artwork and she accepted. On November 20, 2019, the Gallery issued an invoice to Ms. Gu, but, shortly thereafter, told Ms. Gu the sale would not proceed. Ms. Gu attempted to pay, but the Gallery refused her wire payment. The complaint asserts that the Gallery reversed course when two of their most important clients objected to the sale because they had been told to wait until 2020 to purchase the same artist’s works.
Keenan v. Christie’s Inc., No. 154986/2016, 2020 N.Y. Slip Op. 07706, 2020 WL 7502235, at *1 (N.Y. App. Div. Dec. 22, 2020). In June 2016, Plaintiff James Keenan sued Christie’s Inc. and RCPI Landmark Properties LLC (together, the “Defendants” ), alleging that, due to their negligence in monitoring the safety of the mechanical room, he slipped and fell during the scope of his employment, sustaining serious injury. On December 22, 2020, the court issued an order granting the Defendants’ motions for summary judgment and dismissing the Plaintiff’s claim of common-law negligence. The court held that the Defendants did not have actual or constructive notice of a slippery or wet condition in the mechanical room and that Defendant RCPI was not bound by contract to make repairs or maintain the mechanical room. Furthermore, the court found that because the Plaintiff raised additional dangerous conditions for the first time when opposing the Defendants’ motions, those additional conditions could not impose liability on the Defendants.
Weingrad & Weingrad P.C. v. Hon. Paul A. Goetz J.S.C., No. 150004/2021 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Jan. 4, 2021). The Shchukin Gallery Inc. (“Shchukin Gallery” or “Shchukin”), filed a memorandum requesting that Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Paul Goetz reveal the location of five early 20th century oil paintings (three by Kashmir Malevich and two by Natalia Goncharova), collectively worth an estimated $60 million. This filing is the latest event in a tangled saga that began in 2016 when the Shchukin Gallery sued Rustam Iseev (“Iseev”), a Russian financier, for stealing the works. In October 2016, Iseev revealed the location of the paintings in a “secret letter” to the court, but has refused to reveal the location to the gallery or turn over the art. Iseev claims that the art is being held because Shchukin has failed to repay a $2 million debt. Weingrad & Weingrad, the law firm representing the Shchukin Gallery, now also has an interest in recovering the paintings in order to recover the legal fees Shchukin owes it.
McGurr v. The North Face Apparel Corp. et al., No. 2:21-cv-00269 (W.D. Cal. filed Jan. 12, 2021). Graffiti artist Leonard McGurr, a/k/a Futura, has filed a trademark lawsuit against fashion retailer The North Face. In his complaint, filed in early January 2021, Futura alleges that the logo to The North Face’s 2019 apparel line, FUTURELINE, is almost identical to the artist’s own signature motif and that the name of the collection also suggests an association between the two.
Struna v. Sotheby’s, Inc., No. 150602/2021 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Jan. 20, 2021). William Struna (“Struna”) filed a petition against Sotheby’s, Inc. and Cirker’s Moving and Storage Co., Inc. seeking pre-action discovery. The Petition requests a court order directing Sotheby’s to provide Struna with information about a Picasso sculpture, “Head of a Woman (Fernande)” (“the sculpture”), including the names of the buyer(s) and seller(s), provenance documents, and any documents showing where the sculpture was stored and who it was shipped to. Struna alleges that Renzo Leonardi (“Leonardi”), a professor of physics, claimed to be an expert artwork authenticator and materially misrepresented authenticity details about the sculpture and the existence of a third-party buyer. Struna claims that, unbeknownst to him, Leonardi and his family were the actual buyers and that Leonardi sold the sculpture during a private Sotheby’s sale at a far higher price than Struna received for it.
France | France’s highest court, the Cour de Cassation, has annulled the acquittal of the Wildenstein family and granted prosecutors’ request for a retrial. This is the third time the Wildenstein family, a well-known art-dealing dynasty, has had to respond to allegations of tax fraud. On January 6, 2021, the court ruled that the prosecution was not operating outside the statute of limitations in the original trial and that it was not clear whether reporting to the tax administration was legally required for assets placed in trusts. It will likely take a few months for the case to be restarted.
Japan | The Osaka High Court ruled in favor of artist Nobuki Yamamoto (“Yamamoto”), finding that his artwork — a telephone booth filled with goldfish — was protected by copyright law and ordering the infringers to pay Yamamoto 550,000 yen ($5,300) in damages. Fourteen years after Yamamoto’s work was unveiled, a cooperative merchant union and other entities similarly filled a phone booth with water and goldfish and displayed it as a tourist attraction. In 2019, the Nara District Court ruled that Yamamoto’s work was an idea and not an expression, denying it copyright protection. The Osaka High Court reversed that ruling and stated that the artistic decision to have air bubbles flow out of the phone receiver to mimic conversation was creative expression and entitled the work to protection under copyright law.
UK | Art galleries, among other businesses, are now eligible to receive financial support from insurers for coronavirus-related losses, according to a new Supreme Court ruling in the United Kingdom. Rudy Capildeo, who is a partner in Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, says that art businesses still have some cause for concern because the ruling did not specify how losses should be handled.
From the January 2021 Newsletter
Huntley et al. v. Buzzfeed, Inc. No. 1:20-cv-08844 (S.D.N.Y. filed Oct. 22, 2020). Six photojournalists are suing Buzzfeed, a news reporting and pop culture online publisher, for copyright infringement, after publishing an article that had their Instagram posts with their photographs embedded into the post. Each of the photojournalists took these photographs from the front lines of the George Floyd Protests that spread through the nation this past summer and they derive their income from licensing the rights to use these photographs. The complaint alleges that at no time did Buzzfeed seek a license for these photographs, besides offering Huntley $75 post-print. Instagram’s policy is that they can grant a sub-license to Buzzfeed, but that the embedded photograph is not to be licensed out. Instagram’s policy also stipulates that third parties need to have the applicable rights from the rights holders, including a license to share the content, which Buzzfeed did not do. Buzzfeed has subsequently taken down the embedded photos in the article, but only after they had been featured domestically and internationally for a significant period of time.
Boesen v. United Sports Publications LTD., No. 2:20-cv-01552 (E.D.N.Y Nov. 2, 2020). In a case reminiscent of the opposite SDNY rulings in the Sinclair and McGucken cases, the Eastern District dismissed a lawsuit for the unauthorized embedding of Instagram posts. Danish photographer Boesen sued a sports media website for the publishing of his photograph of Caroline Wozniacki by embedding the Instagram post into their website without asking for the artist’s permission. Judge Alynne Ross dismissed the case for copyright infringement based on the “fair use” of the photograph in news media.
People v. Sotheby’s, No. 452192/2020 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Nov. 6, 2020). Sotheby’s is under investigation by the State of New York for allegedly helping a particular client avoid paying sales tax by providing false resale certificates for $27 million worth of art purchases. On December 18, 2020, the auction house moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the Office of the Attorney General had failed to plead (1) that Sotheby’s had an obligation to collect sales tax and pay that tax to the State, (2) that Sotheby’s knowingly filed false tax records, and (3) that Sotheby’s can be held vicariously liable for the acts of its employees.
Cohen et al. v. G&M Realty, L.P. et al., No. 13-cv-5612 and Castillo et al. v. G&M Realty, L.P. et al., No. 15-cv-3220 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 25, 2020). After the 5pointz case was remanded back to the Eastern District of New York, from the Second Circuit, Judge Block has ruled in favor of the artists yet again. G&M Realty was ordered to pay an additional $2 million in attorney’s fees, following a settlement between the parties. Attorney’s fees are stipulated in the Visual Artists Rights Act as an outgrowth of the Copyright Act and are awarded at the Judge’s discretion after trial.
Oliver v. Meow Wolf Inc., No. 1:20-cv-00237 (D.N.M. filed Mar. 16, 2020). Artist Lauren Oliver made the sculpture Space Owl in 2006, the painted version of which caught the eye of Meow Wolf, a Sante Fe Art collective that has become an entertainment leader. In 2014, Oliver began crafting a science fiction narrative, “Ice Station Quellete (ISQ),” in which a fully realized Space Owl sculpture would be the centerpiece. Meow’s flagship project, “House of Eternal Return,” reached out to Oliver in 2015 to offer her the opportunity to become part of the company and in its share profits. The exhibit and Space Owl was a huge success for the Meow Wolf collective, who have made upwards of $158 million since its inception and turned themselves into a large media conglomerate. In her complaint filed in March 2020, Oliver alleges that she has only received $2,000 in profits and that Meow Wolf requested that she sign over all of her IP rights, or else she would be removed from the exhibit. Most recently, on November 25, 2020, Judge Kirtan Khalsa, denied Meow Wolf’s motion to dismiss and allowed the case to proceed.
Lew v. The City of Los Angeles et al., No. 2:20-cv-10948 (C.D. Cal. filed Dec. 2, 2020). Professional artist David Lew, also known as “Shark Toof,” is suing the Chinese American Museum (“CAM”), a tenant of the City of Los Angeles, for the destruction of his artwork after its exhibition at CAM. Lew created 88 original pieces of artwork that were placed on tote bags, which were to be hung outside CAM on clotheslines as performative art, and looked like a series of red lanterns, as part of an exhibition titled Year of the Shark Red Packet. Lew alleges in the complaint that, on December 7, 2018, Defendants sent trash removal crews in to remove and discard the original art, and put them in the trash, without any notice to Lew. Lew was horrified when he learned of his work being destroyed. The complaint also claims that curator of CAM, Justin Hoover, has admitted fault. The claims are grounded in The Visual Artists Rights Act for destruction of work of a “recognized stature.”
Kerson v. Vermont Law School, Inc., No. 2:20-cv-00202 (D. Vt. filed Dec. 2, 2020). Multi-disciplinary visual artist Samuel Kerson is suing the nonprofit that runs Vermont Law School because they have decided to paint over two murals that Kerson has done at the school. The school has chosen to have them painted over because students have filed complaints that the depiction of the Underground Railroad, in such a caricaturistic style, promoted stereotypes about black bodies. The mural painted in 1994, as stated in the complaint, depicts the history of slavery, which includes Vermont’s role in the Underground Railroad but also the capture and shipment of African Americans to the Americas. Kerson alleged that he was never even directly told of the school’s intent to tile over the mural and, after Kerson expressed his discontent, the school told Kerson that he had 90 days to take the murals down; however, the murals are painted on the sheetrock affixed to the building, so the only way to remove them would be to destroy them. Kerson’s claim is grounded in the Visual Artists Rights Act, as he claims that the murals achieved nationwide recognition.
Abbott Laboratories v. Feinberg, No. 1:18-cv-08468 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 9, 2020). A longtime patron of the arts, Abbott Laboratories, has acquired a corporate collection of fine art which decorates the halls of Abbott’s headquarters. In early 2016, Abbott hired an expert art appraiser to assess and update the valuation of several pieces of art in its current collection for insurance purposes. Several months later, the appraiser returned a report to Abbott Laboratories, informing the corporation that one piece of art in particular was a deliberate forgery of their original oil painting, Marsden Hartley’s Maine Flowers (1936–37). An investigation revealed the painting to be in the possession of Carol Feinberg, who asserted that she purchased it in good faith from an art gallery in 1993. The parties disputed title and ownership of the painting, which the SDNY declared to be the property of Abbott Labs, who sufficiently convinced the court of their clear and superior title over the painting. Stay tuned for an article on the blog!
Levin v. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Republic of Turkey, No. 1:18-cv-01586 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 10, 2020). The case of the ancient Roman marble statue of the goddess Cybele came to a conclusion this December: the artifact is back in Turkey and will be displayed at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. In 2016, the statue was consigned to be sold at auction in New York with an export license showing that it has been moved from Turkey to Israel in the 1970s. Turkey promptly contacted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to halt the sale. The complaint, filed by the consignor in February 2018, sought a declaratory judgment that Levin had proper title to the artifact and that Turkey had no ground to seek the forfeiture of the item. In December 2020, the parties settled and the statue was returned to Turkey.
10012 Holdings, Inc. v. Sentinel Insurance Company, Ltd., No. 1:20-cv-4471 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 15, 2020). On December 15, 2020, the SNDY dismissed the Manhattan-based Guy Hepner Gallery’s claims for insurance coverage for losses suffered as a result of its suspension of operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The judge found that the insurance coverage was limited to physical harm and that the gallery failed to show damage to or loss of property, instead of loss of business.
JN Contemporary Art LLC v. Phillips Auctioneers LLC, No. 1:20-cv-04370 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 17, 2020). In a case that is certain to set a precedent for art contracts and force majeure during the COVID-19 pandemic, the SDNY ruled on December 17, 2020 that Phillips auction house was right to terminate an auction guarantee for a $5 million painting by Rudolf Stingel, the sale of which had to be postponed due to the ongoing health crisis. The judge agreed with the auction house that the pandemic qualified as “circumstances beyond our or your reasonable control” and that, because the contract outlined force majeure as a reason to rescind the contract, the auction house was within its right to terminate it.
Meaders v. Helwaser, No. 20-730 (2d Cir. Dec. 23, 2020). Earlier this year, the SDNY ruled in favor of the Helwaser Gallery on summary judgment, in the estate dispute over the ownership and sale of a stabile by Alexander Calder. Plaintiff Phyliss Meaders alleged that Helwaser was insufficiently diligent when they acquired the work from Phyliss’s brother, and that they should have known that he was an alleged part-owner of the artwork and, therefore, did not have full authority to sell it without Phyliss’s permission. The lower court ruled that Phyliss had failed to present evidence from which a jury could conclude that she owned the sculpture at the time of the sale, which the Second Circuit court affirmed less than a year after the previous ruling.
France | Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese restitution activist, has been sentenced after removing an object from a display case in the Louvre. Diyabanza reclaimed the item in an attempt to make a political statement calling attention to restitution issues, and has committed similar political acts across Europe. In his action at the Louvre on October 22, which was filmed and posted to Facebook, Diyabanza lifted a sculpture from its mount shortly before guards intervened. He was immediately arrested at the museum and jailed as he awaited trial. He has now been sentenced to a fine and a deferred prison term in Paris. Diyabanza claims his political acts cannot be considered theft because the items he chooses to make statements about are stolen property. Diyabanza faced charges for political acts at the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Arts in Marseille and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris as well. He plans to appeal the decision.
Netherlands | A court in Amsterdam ruled that a Wassily Kandinsky work can remain in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum, after heirs of the Jewish man to whom the piece belonged before WWII claimed they have a right to the painting. The piece went to auction during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and sold for a third of what it would have after the war. The Dutch government’s Restitutions Committee rejected the heirs’ application in 2018, and the heirs then took the museum and city of Amsterdam to court. According to the heirs’ lawyer, Axel Hagedorn, several members of the committee have connections to the Stedelijk Museum, and he claims this resulted in a bias against the heirs. A judge declared the ruling as binding because the court could not find any evidence that the work was stolen, and it had not been sold under duress nor due to financial losses incurred by the Nazi occupation. Hagedorn says the heirs plan to appeal the ruling.