Christie's may sue over Blue Period Picasso

The Art Newspaper 16 November 2006
Georgina Adam

NEW YORK. Christie’s may sue the claimant of a $60m Picasso after it was dramatically pulled from sale the day it was due to be auctioned. The auction house took the decision after a last-minute “ambush” lawsuit by an heir of the painting’s original owner.

Christie’s withdrew the Blue Period painting, Portrait de Angel de Soto, 1903, estimated at $40m-$60m, from its evening sale of impressionist and modern art on 8 November. The auction house made the decision even though an American judge had refused to stop the sale of the work. Sources outside Christie’s claimed that before the lawsuit, there had been attempt to negotiate a cash payment.

The next day, the Washington, DC firm of lawyers which represents Mr Schoeps, Byrne Goldenberg and Hamilton, PLLC filed a complaint in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.

The painting had been sent for sale by the British composer and art collector Andrew Lloyd Webber from his charitable foundation, and was one of the highlights of Christie’s evening session; despite the withdrawal, the sale went on to make an all time high of $491.2m.

The ownership challenge came from Julius Schoeps, an heir to a previous owner of the painting, the German banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Three days before the sale he filed a lawsuit in a US district court, claiming that Mr von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had been coerced by the Nazis when he sold it, as well as other paintings– including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which is now in the Yasuda Insurance Company in Japan–in 1934.

US district Judge Rakoff dismissed the case on a technicality over jurisdiction; Mr Schoeps’ lawyers had argued they could recover the painting in a federal court, but the judge disagreed.

In a statement, Christie’s said, “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. We have thus been compelled to withdraw the Portrait from tonight’s sale. Christie’s and our client remain confident that the underlying claim has no merit, and we reserve the right to seek damages for harm caused to this picture, the charity that rightfully owns it and Christie’s.”

Carey Ramos, a lawyer for the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation, said, “This was a case of shameless opportunism, and an attempt to ambush the sale. It was based on speculation about what happened in 1935, but there was no proof to support the charges.”

The veteran art lawyer Peter R. Stern, of the New York firm McLaughlin & Stern, LLP is not involved in the case but has read the court papers. He said: “The case is extremely unfair to Lloyd-Webber and Christie’s. The Schoeps papers contain an extensive amount of creative writing; yet they don’t even explain the nature of the relationship between the claimant and the family who originally owned the painting. As an attorney, I would have been embarrassed to file the Schoeps claim.”

John R. Byrne, Jr of Byrne Goldenberg and Hamilton, PLLC said: “This case was not an ‘ambush’. The case was filed as soon as we could confirm that the painting was in New York for jurisdictional purposes. In any event, Christie’s own research disclosed the potential that there was a serious Nazi taint associated with the painting. Yet they did not contact our client and were going forward with the sale without informing potential buyers of this issue.”

Byrne Goldenberg and Hamilton, PLLC specialises in the restitution of Nazi-looted art. The same firm had attempted, in a federal court in California in March 2005, to obtain the return of Van Gogh’s View of Asylum and Chapel at Saint Remy, 1889, from the actress Elizabeth Taylor, using the same argument over jurisdiction. That suit was thrown out by the judge. An appeal is pending.
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