Wednesday, December 02, 2009

"It raises the question of whether a private foundation such as this has any legal obligation ... to authenticate"

An important decision yesterday from the Appellate Division on the obligation to authenticate. For the most part, the case should provide a measure of comfort to artist foundations and authentication committees, but, as we'll see below, some uncertainty remains.

The case involves two theatrical stage sets (and related material) that the plaintiff claims are works by Alexander Calder. He submitted them to the Calder Foundation for authentication in 1997. He claims he never got a response one way or the other, and that without a confirmation of authenticity from the Foundation, he cannot sell the work. The trial court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss. The First Department has now affirmed.

First, the good news for similarly-situated foundations. The panel begins by noting:

"Whether the art world accepts a catalogue raisonne as a definitive listing of an artist's work is a function of the marketplace, rather than of any legal directive or requirement. As a consequence, neither the creation of such a catalogue nor its inclusion or exclusion of particular works creates any legal entitlements or obligations" (emphasis added).

It adds:

"[A] declaration of authenticity would not resolve plaintiff's situation, because his inability to sell the sets is a function of the marketplace. If buyers will not buy works without the Foundation's listing them in its catalogue raisonne, then the problem lies in the art world's voluntary surrender of that ultimate authority to a single entity. If it is immaterial to the art world that plaintiff has proof that the sets were built to Calder's specifications, and that Calder approved of their construction, then it will be immaterial to the art world that a court has pronounced the work 'authentic.' Plaintiff's problem can be solved only when buyers are willing to make their decisions based upon the Work and the unassailable facts about its creation, rather than allowing the Foundation's decisions as to what merits inclusion in its catalogue raisonne to dictate what is worthy of purchase."

In sum, the case turns on "whether a duty is owed to plaintiff by ... the defendants that would entitle him to any of the relief [he] seeks — whether based on the Foundation's not-for-profit status, or its explicit or implicit promises or assertions, or its unique position as the sole arbiter of whether work will be included in Calder's catalogue raisonne." The panel "discern[ed] no such duty on defendants' part, and therefore no enforceable right of plaintiff to relief against them."

So far, so good for foundations that authenticate, or which are putting together catalogues raisonne: the quoted language would seem to suggest that they can reject work without worrying about getting sued. But then we come to the panel's discussion of the cause of action for "product disparagement."

The panel begins by noting that "the difficulty of applying the product disparagement cause of action to the assertions made in the present case is that plaintiff here has alleged no affirmative publication of a false statement to third persons." But, it continues, "as a practical matter, the denial of authentication is arguably indistinguishable from a direct assertion of inauthenticity." So failing to authenticate the work, or omitting it from the catalogue, is really just like affirmatively announcing to the world: "This work is not authentic. Stay away from it."

The panel acknowledges that "there is no question that adopting this approach and treating the Foundation's non-response as a publication asserting the Work's inauthenticity to the world at large would constitute a substantial expansion of the law. Yet the fact that non-inclusion in a catalogue raisonne is understood in the art world as a conclusion that the work is not authentic tends to support the application of the cause of action in circumstances such as these" (emphases added).

After taking us that far, though, the panel steps back . . . and dodges the issue: "However, we need not come to a conclusion on that point in this case because the claim must in any event fail on statute of limitations grounds." The statute of limitations for product disparagement is one year. The plaintiff submitted the work to the Foundation in 1997/98; by 2004/05, according to his own complaint, he is losing potential sales because of the Foundation's refusal to authenticate the work. Since he didn't bring suit until 2007, his claim is therefore time-barred.

The other door that was left at least partially open relates to the antitrust claim (under the Donnelly Act, New York's antitrust statute). The panel attempts to distinguish this case from the currently pending lawsuit against the Warhol Foundation, and in so doing provides a blueprint for future plaintiffs to survive a motion to dismiss:

"In holding that the complaint in [the Warhol case] successfully stated a claim for an illegal market restraint and monopolization, the district court cited a number of alleged facts: that the Board made unsolicited suggestions to owners of Warhol works that they should submit their works for authentication; that such policies as the Board has regarding authentication were inconsistently applied; that the Board reversed prior determinations authenticating works; that the Board refused to authenticate works that the Foundation had previously attempted to purchase; and that, unlike other such boards, which are composed of well qualified and well known independent experts, the Warhol Board is made up of individuals who lack experience and who are not independent of the Warhol Foundation. Plaintiff's complaint here contains virtually none of the allegations that made the restraint of trade claim viable in the [Warhol] case" (emphasis added).

I suspect this will (now) be the last complaint in this genre about which that can be said.