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Roy Lichtenstein, Girl in Mirror, 1964
Roy Lichtenstein, Girl in Mirror, 1964


Jan. 24, 2012

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You don’t build a billion-dollar-a-year art business without ruffling a few feathers. And so it seems that megadealer Larry Gagosian is entangled in more than his share of lawsuits. He recently settled the case of the embattled Mark Tansey “cow painting,” The Invisible Eye Test (1981), which, as many will remember, was sold by Gagosian in 2009 to British collector Robert Wylde -- who was dismayed to find that it was already owned in part by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gagosian blamed his seller, former Artforum publisher and dealer Charles Cowles, for failing to mention that he had sold the work without consent from the Met or his mother, Jan Cowles, who was its majority shareholder. In the end, Gagosian settled his differences with Wylde to the tune of $4.4 million and Jan Cowles donated her remaining share of the work to the museum.

The Met reports that the Tansey returned to the institution just a few days ago -- a reinstallation date has yet to be determined -- but Gagosian’s legal feud with the Cowles’ is far from over. Just last week, Jan Cowles, who suffers from dementia, filed suit against Gagosian (via her longtime accountant and attorney-in-fact Lester Marks), accusing him of accepting Roy Lichtenstein’s Girl in Mirror (1964) from Charles in 2008 and then selling it without Jan's consent, even though Gagosian knew the artwork wasn't Charles' to sell.

What's more, the complaint accuses Gagosian of selling the painting for less than it was worth, and convincing Charles to accept an even smaller sum than originally promised. According to the suit, Gagosian originally agreed to sell the picture for not less than $3 million, eventually sold it for $2 million, and kept a $1 million commission on the sale rather than the $500,000 he allegedly agreed to.

The lawsuit values Girl in Mirror at $5 million. It notes that other works from the edition -- the edition size of Girl in Mirror is eight -- had sold at Sotheby’s New York for just over $4 million in 2007 and at Christie's New York for $4.9 million in 2010. The court papers also point out that the Lichtenstein market has been on an upward trajectory in general, citing in particular the record-setting sale of a Lichtenstein painting for $43.2 million last fall.  

Gagosian said he lowered the price because the work was badly damaged, and buyers had been refusing it. To support the claim that Girl in Mirror was damaged, Gagosian sent Cowles a page from a condition report prepared by Amann + Eastbrook Conservation Associates that detailed discolorations, texture alterations and “noticeable prior restoration.”

In response, Cowles’ team has accused Gagosian of fraud. The lawsuit suggests that the condition report in question was in fact done for a different work -- an attached invoice stated that “the work was examined in the owner’s home: Agnes Gund, 765 Park Avenue.” In addition, the complaint says that a previous report had listed the work as in “good condition,” and that no problems with the work were noted either when it was initially examined at the Cowles home, nor when it was shipped by the Gagosian Gallery for display at the Frieze Art Fair and Art Basel -- where the work would not have been displayed at all if it were in bad condition.

Jan is seeking $4.5 million for the work and $10 million in punitive damages.

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