An Expert’s Opinion and the Possible Legal Ramifications
A recent article in the Maine Antique Digest (MAD) described the growing trend of people suing experts for their opinions. This is a very troubling issue and one that needs to be addressed. If experts are not given the freedom to render their opinions without the fear of legal action, buyers are going to either find it very difficult to talk with the leading expert about a work they are considering, or it may cost more than most people are willing to pay.
MAD reported on a couple of cases that have made, or are making, their way through the court system … here is a synopsis:
Barbara B. Lynes is the compiler of the Georgia O’Keeffe catalogue raisonné. In 1996 Ed Brady bought an O’Keeffe from a New Hampshire dealer for $130,000. In 2000 he took the work to a New York gallery and the piece was turned down because it was not listed in the catalogue raisonné. Brady contacted Lynes and learned that she was aware of the works existence, but did not include it in her raisonné because in her opinion it was not an authentic work. After further research Brady determined that there was a long chain of previous owners who got rid of the work as fast as they acquired it – a game of hot potato.
Brady, a retired lawyer, sued them all and this case was settled out of court in 2003. Then in November of 2004 Brady decided to sue Lynes, the National Gallery of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and Berry-Hill Galleries, NY (one of the previous owners). He claims that Lynes and the National Gallery learned during the time she worked on the raisonné that this work was a fake. In addition, the work had been consigned to Berry-Hill Galleries in 1995 and it was at that time that they learned, through Judy Walsh (Lynes’ assistant), that there were questions about the work’s authenticity. Berry-Hill, reportedly, sent the work to California where it reentered the sales circuit and finally made its way to Brady in 1996. Brady’s contention is that all “who saw the painting and learned it was a fake has a responsibility to alert others and not allow it to remain ‘in the stream of commerce’”.
This trial has yet to come to court.
Here is my question … if there is an expert on this artist and Brady was considering the purchase of a work, why didn’t he contact the expert before he bought it? Wouldn’t that have saved him, and the others, a lot of time, effort, energy and money?
On to another story:
This one concerns Steve Seltzer, an artist and known authority on the works of Olaf C. Seltzer (his grandfather). In 2000 an auction room received a work, purportedly by Charles M. Russell, for sale from Steve & Frank Morton. The auction room contacted Ginger Renner (the widow of Frederic Renner, the Russell expert). Mrs. Renner informed them that while the work was listed in one of her husband’s earlier books on the artist, he pulled it from later editions. She then suggested that they contact Steve Seltzer.
Seltzer examined the work and concluded that the signature was wrong and the work was in fact done by his grandfather Olaf C. Seltzer. While O.C. Seltzer is a fairly well known Western artist, his paintings sell for about one-tenth the price of a Russell … effectively turning an $700,000 - $800,000 Russell into a $70,000 - $80,000 Seltzer.
As you can guess, the owners were not too happy and hired the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. The firm initially sent Steve Seltzer a letter giving him “the option of changing his opinion or being sued.” Since Seltzer refused to alter his opinion (hooray for him) they brought suit against him in Montana on July 16, 2002 asking for $750,000 as well as punitive damages. The Morton’s supposedly had evidence that the signature was not altered, but could not find anyone to back up their assertion of the provenance (history of ownership). On the other hand, Seltzer had nine affidavits supporting his conclusion. As you can guess, the suit was dropped.
Now for the real interesting news … Seltzer decide to sue the Mortons and the law firm that represented them claiming their suit had damaged his health (stress) and his reputation in the art world. They sought punitive damages and legal fees. On February 7, 2005 a verdict was handed down that stunned not only the courtroom, but many in the art world. The jury awarded Seltzer more than $21 million in damages for malicious prosecution! While I am sure there will be many appeals to this verdict, this might be a very bright light at the end of this tunnel.
In the end it is important to remember that most experts work on their projects out of love for the particular artist and many are looking to give back something to a profession that has given them so much. As you all know we are consulted for our opinion on works of not only Ridgway Knight, Julien Dupré, and Emile Munier, but Cortes and Blanchard as well. We do this not only for our love of each artist’s work, but in order to help put the market for these artists in order … to assist in ferreting out the wrong ones so individuals in the future will have a better chance of buying genuine works.
There are always individuals who will not be happy with the conclusion an expert arrives at, but as I stated earlier the expert needs the freedom to render his/her opinion without the fear of legal repercussions. Without some sort of protection, many fakes will continue to go undetected and be bought and sold for years to come.
Virtual Exhibition Upgrades
Last month I mentioned that we were beginning the time consuming upgrade of our Virtual Exhibitions. Many of these exhibits were added to our site by our web master years ago and the quality of the scans were inferior to what we are able to produce today. This month we have spend many hours rescanned images for the following exhibits – Daniel Ridgway Knight, Julien Dupré, Henry J. Yeend King, George Armfield, John F. Herring, Alfred de Breanski, Louis Aston Knight, and The Clare Family – and in many cases we have added numerous previously sold works. For example, the original Clare Family exhibit featured about 20 works … now there are 65 high-resolution images! We have also created a Virtual Exhibit for the works of Gregory Frank Harris featuring 15 previously sold paintings by the artist and a short biography.
For those of you who are fans of these artists, I know you will all enjoy seeing these enhanced exhibits.
The Next Dahesh Show
The Dahesh Museum in New York City will present The Dahesh Collection: Celebrating a Decade of Discovery which will open on May 24 and run through September 22, 2005. This new show will explore how the Museum grew out of the prescient collecting of Dr. Dahesh, how it has helped fuel interest in 19th century European art of the academic tradition, and how its growing holdings illustrate the grand themes that define the period.
The exhibition’s signature image will be William A. Bouguereau’s Water Girl (1885). This glowing masterwork distills perfectly many of the issues surrounding 19th century academic art; its cosmopolitan transformation of classical forms, in this case ancient sculpture; its assured drawing and deft brushwork; and its prestige among public and private collectors, including the titans of Gilded Age America. Also featured will be works by Francois Joseph Navez, Jean-Leon Gérôme, Emile-Jean Horace Vernet, Alexandre Cabanel and Wilhelm Gause.
Howard L. Rehs
© Rehs Galleries, Inc., New York – May 2005
Gallery Updates: New works by Jean B.C. Corot, Fritz Zuber-Buhler, Edouard Leon Cortès, Sally Swatland, and Gregory Frank Harris have been added to our web site this month.
Among the many paintings that found new homes since our last newsletter are works by Henry J. Harpignies, Pierre J. Ouvrie, Daniel Ridgway Knight, Julien Dupré, Allan Banks, four works by Gregory F. Harris, and another classic photograph by Ansel Adams titled: Moonrise, Hernandez (1944).
Virtual Exhibitions: As I mentioned in one of the feature articles, our upgrade is well under way!
Next Month: Update on the state of the art market … should be interesting.