A British Court Hands Sotheby’s a Win in Its Lawsuit Over the Bungled Sale of $13.8 Million Frans Hals

Sotheby's has been pursuing reimbursement for several years

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Man, one of a series of Old Master works sold by a French dealer that authorities now believe may be forgeries. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A British court has sided with Sotheby’s in its ruling that the auction house can recoup millions of dollars in costs after doubts about the authenticity of a $10.8 million Frans Hals painting forced the reversal of a 2011 private sale it brokered.

The ruling delivered today by Justice Robin Knowles in London’s High Court, the business and property courts of England, and Wales commercial court, found that a company known as Fairlight Ventures is liable to Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s had reimbursed the private buyer, Richard Hedreen, when authenticity questions were first raised in 2016. Fairlight, which is run by investor David Kowitz, refused to accept any liability.

Another party to the private sale, London dealer Marc Weiss, reimbursed Sotheby’s $4.2 million this past spring as part of an “amicable” settlement without any admission of liability. Sotheby’s continued to pursue Fairlight for the remaining portion of the purchase price.

The two parties “disagree on the question whether Fairlight is obliged to reimburse Sotheby’s for half of the returned purchase price,” the judge wrote prior to the Weiss settlement.

But under the terms of the contract, “Fairlight is liable to Sotheby’s for failing to return the purchase price of the painting,” in breach of its contract, the judge wrote. Essentially the events that happened give rise to liability on the part of Fairlight. . . I find nothing in Fairlight’s suggestion that Sotheby’s conduct should cause the court to deny this remedy.”

Fairlight has argued it shouldn’t have to return funds to Sotheby’s because it wasn’t a party to the auction house’s deal with Hedreen. “Nobody has proven that the piece is either genuine or a fake,” Fairlight attorney Nigel Rowley told Bloomberg this past spring. Rowley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No particular monetary amount is noted in the judgment, nor does it settle the question of the painting’s authenticity. “Whether by Frans Hals or not, it is hoped that its intrinsic qualities will not be ignored, and that it may be enjoyed for what it is, a fine painting,” the judge wrote.

But it seems unlikely that connoisseurs will be leaping to snap up this troubled work in the near future. In 2010, Weiss paid $3.4 million for the work in a joint purchase with Fairlight. The two bought the painting from French dealer Guiliano Ruffini, who has sold numerous Old Master works since revealed to be fakes.

“We were glad to see our position completely vindicated by the court,” a representative for Sotheby’s told Artnet News. “Sotheby’s was successful on every front and Fairlight is liable to Sotheby’s for failing to return the full purchase price of the painting, and has been ordered to pay costs and interest, subject only to an adjustment to reflect an early settlement reached with Mark Weiss.”

Kowitz’s attorney did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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