THE CASE OF THE 20-YEAR-OLD ART SALEJune 27, 2011
Two weeks ago, Manhattan dealer Richard Feigen told the New York Observer that the lawsuit filed against him by an Arizona couple who claim he sold them a painting of questionable provenance 20 years ago was “bogus.” Feigen said that the 19th-century, Landscape with a Peasant Girl and Her Cow, is in fact an authentic Rosa Bonheur, and also asserted that he didn’t sell the painting to them anyway -- it had been purchased at a benefit for the Rhode Island School of Design and Feigen only received a commission. “We’re the wrong party to sue if he’s suing anybody because we didn’t sell it to him!” he told the paper.
Now, an attorney for Saundra and Richard Verri, the couple who originally bought the painting for $15,000 -- and claimed that Feigen owed them $49,800 for the supposed misattribution -- has had her say. Vanessa Verri, a relative and an attorney at Rosette & Associates in Phoenix, says that indeed the dealer is to blame because he still took home most of the sale proceeds. “While RISD may have received a small commission on the painting, Feigen and his company received the majority,” Verri’s lawyer said in an email. She did not know exactly how much Feigen received.
The issue first arose when the Verris took the painting to Sotheby’s earlier this year and were told by a specialist that the work may in fact have been painted by Bonheur’s brother, François Auguste Bonheur, and that the cow and woman on a swing were painted into the composition posthumously. Feigen wrote in a letter to Richard Verri, “Based on the information and scholarship available when you bought the painting 20 years ago, we had no question about its authorship. You can see that from the attached copy of a 1990 letter from the French Ministry of Culture.”
As for Feigen’s threat in the Observer that he’s considering filing a defamation suit against the Verris, their attorney demurred. “There is no legal basis for his bringing a defamation suit against my clients.”
The case is typical of authenticity disputes brought many years after the original sale of the work in question, pointed out Ronald D. Spencer, a New York attorney who is editor of Spencer’s Art Law Journal. Spencer sees two major difficulties with the plaintiff’s case. First, the lawsuit is filed in Arizona, and it’s hard to see how the Arizona courts have jurisdiction over a transaction that occurred in New York or in Rhode Island. And second, on all the claims in the case – contract, tort, fraud or others – the statute of limitations is long past. “In New York, the statute of limitations on breach of warranty claims is six years,” Spencer pointed out. “So your plaintiff is out of luck by about 14 years.