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Case Preview: Janney-Pace v. Metropolitan Fine Arts & Antiques

By Joshua Greenfield

According to the facts alleged in a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court (SDNY)[1] on Sept. 27, 2013, an elderly Ohio woman was defrauded of more than $1 million by the Metropolitan Fine Arts & Antiques store located in New York City on West 57th St. between 5th and 6th Ave.

Plaintiff in the compliant, Priscilla Janney-Pace noticed several sculptures in the store front of an antiques store in January of 2012.  She alleges that store employees and its CEO informed her that the pieces were valuable “museum quality” 17th century “Netsuke” sculptures.[2]  Based upon these representations, plaintiff purchased several sculptures.  Subsequently, store employees continued to pursue her patronage, despite her repeated attempts to get them to desist.  For example, she was solicited in writing, by phone calls and even personal visits at her Florida and Ohio homes.  She also received a box of chocolates for Thanksgiving.  Some of these advances must have worked because Plaintiff repeatedly succumbed to the store’s relentless high-pressure sales tactics and purchased several additional statues over the following months spending more than $1 million.

Plaintiff’s daughter eventually discovered how much her mother was spending and got an independent appraisal of the items purchased.  According to the appraisal, the pieces plaintiff purchased were actually “poorly carved” Chinese sculptures worth less than $100,000.  The store’s valuation appraisal valued the objects at more than $2 million.

Plaintiff sued the store under multiple theories including fraudulent inducement, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment, unilateral mistake, and violation of New York, Florida, and Ohio state statutes for deceptive business practices.  According to the complaint, there were no written agreements between the parties for any of the transactions.  Plaintiff is seeking to rescind the purchases, receive reimbursement and obtain punitive damages.

The complaint brings to light two interesting points of law with which art dealers should be familiar.  The first is obvious: do not intentionally engage in any fraudulent misrepresentations to obtain a customer’s patronage.  The second is the importance of reducing any agreements to writing.  New York,[3] Ohio,[4] Florida[5] and most other states have laws that protect consumers from in-home solicitations involving the purchase of goods.  These laws provide the consumer with a three-day “cooling off period” during which the consumer may cancel the transaction without penalty.  Such agreements must be reduced to writing and the seller must notify the purchaser of his right to cancel.  Failure to inform the consumer of his right to cancel can void the transaction and subject the seller to liability.

The case has yet to move forward, but if the alleged facts are proven true, it is likely that plaintiff will be able to, at minimum, recover the money she spent on the sculptures.

[1] Complaint (S.D.N.Y. 2013) (No. 13 Civ. 6875).

[2] See International Netsuke Society (last visited Oct. 4, 2013) (Netsuke sculptures are 17th century miniature Japanese sculptures usually carved from wood or ivory).

[3]  See N.Y. Gen. Bus. Law §§ 349-350; See also N.Y. Pers. Prop. Law § 428.

[4] Fla. Stat. § 501.021, § 501.204.

[5] Ohio Rev. Code § 1345.23, § 1345.02.