Sotheby's sues vendor of fake Hals
February 7 2017
Sotheby's has filed a lawsuit against Mark Weiss, the london-based dealer, seeking the return of monies paid after the sale of a painting by Frans Hals, which was subsequently declared a fake. The painting was sold by Sotheby's in 2011 on behalf of Weiss in a private treaty sale for a reported $10m. But after doubts grew over the painting's former owner, Giulano Ruffini, Sotheby's commissioned a full technical analysis of the painting, and this found that the painting was a modern forgery. More background here.
As is the case in any consignment with a major auction house, the sale contract states that should a sale collapse (over something like authenticity) then the consignor must return the funds. Sotheby's has already refunded the buyer of the painting, Seattle-based collector Richard Hedreen. The case against Weiss is in the English High Court, and follows a similar case filed in a US court against the consignor of a St Jerome, attributed to the Circle of Parmigianino, which was sold by Sotheby's in 2012. That painting had also, like the Hals, once been owned by Ruffini.
Sotheby's put out a statement about the new legal action:
Today, Sotheby's issued proceedings against Mark Weiss, Mark Weiss Limited and Fairlight Art Ventures LLP (an investment vehicle of David Kowitz), for the recovery of sums paid following the sale of the counterfeit Frans Hals painting "Portrait of a Gentleman" in 2011.
When we learned last year that the painting originated from Giuliano Ruffini, we commissioned an in-depth technical analysis which established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery and we rescinded the sale and reimbursed the buyer in full.
The technical analysis was conducted by Orion Analytical, one of the world’s leading experts in the field, and was peer reviewed by John Twilley, another leading conservation scientist. In light of Sotheby’s recent acquisition of Orion Analytical, Sotheby’s has now engaged Dr. Ashok Roy, former Director of Collections and Director of Science, National Gallery in London.
While we always prefer to settle matters without legal action, the sellers have refused to make good on their contractual obligations and we have been left with no other option than to take appropriate action to enforce our rights.
As the matter is now before the English High Court, Sotheby's has no further comment.
The decision to hire Ashok Roy as an independent specialist to study the Hals is presumably in response to some criticism that has been made by Ruffini's lawyer, in the New York Times, that Orion Analytical's findings are somehow tainted by the fact that Sotheby's bought the company after the Hals tests were announced. I must say I find this logic extremely hard to follow, since you'd imagine that if there were to be any conflict of interest it would be the other way around; pressure to declare the painting genuine. And that presumes that any of the parties involved would be prepared to make such decisions or exert such pressue anyway.
It's interesting to see that Sotheby's are also suing David Kowitz. Kowitz has been a longstanding client of Weiss, as set out in this article in the FT from 2010. Presumably in this case Kowitz has also been acting as Weiss' business partner.
A statement from Weiss said that when the sale of the painting was made in 2011 it was "widely believed by all the leading connoisseurs to be a work by Frans Hals". Weiss and his advisors argue further testing should be carried out "before the assertion that this work is a modern fake can be definitively made".
The statement said Sotheby’s has "repeatedly refused to allow Weiss’s experts access to the painting to carry out the further tests."
However Sotheby's said the painting was with the "experts Mr. Weiss had instructed for a four month period and was subject to extensive testing by them. Mr. Weiss later suggested that additional tests be conducted by a new group of conservators, but Sotheby’s concluded that none of these further tests would change its conclusion”.
The Weiss statement said he "intends to contest the claim vigorously".
Presumably this means we can look forward to another High Court trial about the authenticity of an Old Master painting. The most recent one, about the supposed Caravaggio Card Sharps, was fascinating, but eye-wateringly expensive for both sides.
As ever, the usual caveats apply here; there is no evidence that anyone involved in selling or handling these paintings knew at the time that they were or might be fake, and no suggestion that anyone acted anything other than diligently and honestly.