The New York Times reports today on a "talented con artist" who swindled a retired businessman out of a Degas bronze, reportedly worth $600,000. The swindler, Tom Doyle, has been indicted in Manhattan on charges of grand larceny. The article refers near the end to a civil suit the victim has brought against three Manhattan galleries (through which I assume the sculpture passed) demanding the return of the piece or repayment of its value. But unless there is more to the story than so far appears, that sounds like a longshot to me. It's true that, as the old saying goes, "you can't get good title from a thief"; but this sounds more like a case of so-called "voidable" title, which arises when the original transferor voluntarily relinquishes possession of the goods and intends to pass title. In those circumstances the transferee (even if a con artist) does have the power to transfer good title to a good-faith purchaser. The Times reports that in this case the victim "entrusted" the sculpture to Mr. Doyle, who "said he would buy the sculpture" and even wired a $100,000 down payment to the victim’s lawyer, all of which does sound again like voluntary relinquishment and intent to pass title.
As an amusing art law side note, as part of his con Doyle "carried a business card that identified him ... as a member of the Duveen family, a descendant of Joseph Duveen, later Lord Duveen of Millbank," who "dominated the world art market during the 1920’s and 30’s." I recently mentioned Lord Duveen in discussing the famous "unsolicited public comment" case, Hahn v. Duveen. He also makes an appearance in the Peter Schjeldahl piece I mentioned earlier today; he notes that Duveen, "the Machiavelli of dealers, ... in order to boost his trade in Old Masters, was said to have bullied a seller into accepting more payment from him than had been asked."