Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Christie's Picasso Sale Can (But Won't) Proceed (UPDATED 2X)

The New York Times this morning reports that Southern District Judge Jed Rakoff refused yesterday to block Christie’s from auctioning a Picasso painting that a German banker’s heir says was sold under duress in Nazi Germany. The suit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, with the judge saying that the plaintiff could re-file the case in State Court, which his lawyer said he plans to do today. Christie's says the sale will go forward anyway. [N.B.: The picture has been withdrawn from sale. See second update below.]

The Times story includes a great quote from Judge Rakoff:

"I know that no one in the art world is just interested in money or in buying and selling paintings for profit. They’re guided by their belief in truth and beauty. But nevertheless, one might suspect that this is just a fight about money."

Christie’s has given a pre-sale estimate of $40 million to $60 million to the painting, variously called “The Absinthe Drinker” or “Portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto,” which can be seen here. Daniel Freedman at his New York Sun blog asks, "Will the painting be sold for less than its estimated value? Anyone who buys it must calculate the possibility of having a judge rule that it must be returned." Or at least must factor in the legal costs of defending against the claim.

The New York Law Journal [$] has more.

UPDATE: The Art Newspaper is reporting that Christie's "look[s] set to withdraw the painting from auction."

UPDATE 2X: The painting has been withdrawn from the sale:

"'Despite the favorable ruling of the federal court dismissing their claims there, we have been informed by the litigant's attorneys that they intend to file another suit in state court,' said the statement [by Marc Porter of Christie's]. 'A cloud of doubt has been recklessly placed on the `Portrait de Angel de Soto' by the litigant and his attorneys on the very eve of this long-scheduled and highly publicized sale,' said the statement by [Porter]. He said Christie's reserved the right to seek damages for the harm 'caused this picture, the charity that rightfully owns it and Christie's.'"

Lee Rosenbaum says it's "the prudent, if painful, thing." She also reports that the plaintiff "had sought to reach a monetary settlement of the case with [the seller]," but the seller's lawyer says his client "flatly refused" to enter into such discussions.

Derek Fincham of the Illicit Cultural Property Blog doesn't think much of the underlying claim:

"The claims seem tenuous to me at first blush. The plaintiff, Mr. Schoeps, is the heir of Paul von Mendelssohn-Barthold, a wealthy Berlin banker and art collector. He was forced to sell all his paintings as a result of Nazi persecution. The Nazi's didn't actually take the painting, but they seized his assets so that he had no choice but to sell the work. ... I'll try to get my hands on the dismissal and look at the substance of the claims. To me, though, it seems like the claimant will have a very difficult time winning the case."

Certainly, the plaintiff's 70-year delay in pressing his claim is going to be difficult to overcome.