Monday, May 22, 2006

Chrismas Spirit

The L.A. Times reports this weekend on a lawsuit filed by Greek artist Jannis Kounellis against veteran dealer Doug Chrismas. The lawsuit, in Los Angeles Superior Court, says Kounellis consigned more than $4 million worth of art to Chrismas, who then "ke[pt] most of the profits and refus[ed] to return the pieces that did not sell." The complaint seeks punitive damages of "no less than $20 million." Punitive damages are rarely awarded in breach of contract actions, but presumably the complaint includes other claims as well (e.g., breach of fiduciary duty). Chrismas is no stranger to the legal system -- the Times reports that in the 1980's he pleaded no contest to criminal charges that he stole works by Rauschenberg, Warhol, Stella, and Judd and he's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection "at least six times" since 1982 -- but in this case he basically waves the white flag, telling the Times he is "doing a full accounting of the proceeds ... -- minus the expense of exhibiting [the work]" -- and is returning all the unsold pieces. One interesting question is whether he has the right to deduct the exhibition expenses. Normally that's determined by the parties' agreement -- which, in this case, was oral. In a post discussing the lawsuit, Caryn at says: "I think that a contract is necessary and, most importantly, it opens up a discussion of what is expected of both gallery and artist and then it's agreed upon in writing. A contract is proof that your terms have been discussed and, in my opinion, if someone doesn't want to draw up and sign an agreed upon contract, something is fishy." I couldn't agree more.