Art Collector David Mugrabi Sues Mana Contemporary for Holding His Collection ‘Hostage’

The Mugrabis want their collection back.

Alberto Mugrabi and David Mugrabi. © Patrick McMullan, photographer Joe Schildhorn.

A legal battle is brewing between art collector David Mugrabi and Mana Contemporary, the New Jersey-based fine art storage company. Mugrabi is suing Mana, which he says is preventing him from accessing his stored collection of over 1,300 works. He claims there was an arrangement for his family to use the Mana facilities free of charge, and that the organization has wrongfully charged him in excess of $500,000.

The son of noted Andy Warhol collector Jose Mugrabi—the family is said to have over 1,000 pieces by the legendary Pop artist—David Mugrabi has filed his suit on behalf of the Mugrabi clan, which works together to collect, exhibit, and sell art. As reported in Bloomberg, Mugrabi accused Mana of denying the family access to the art collection, stored at the company’s Jersey City facility.

According to the complaint, filed in New York State Supreme Court, the Mugrabis have stored 1,389 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, and collectible furniture, as well as some 80 miscellaneous items, at Mana. They claim the family art collection is valued in excess of $100 million.

The Mugrabis began storing their collection at Mana in March 2014. They say that they paid the normal rates until September of the same year when Jose Mugrabi met with Mana president Gene Lemay and drafted a new storage agreement. In exchange for “advising clients” to use Mana, the Mugrabis would store their entire collection there for free.

When a new account manager began handling the Mugrabi’s collection at Mana in May 2015, the company allegedly ceased to honor the second agreement, and began sending what the suit calls “spurious invoices.” On August 8, Mana is said to have sent the family a bill of $519,475.43.

The suit claims that Mana began preventing the Mugrabis from removing artworks from storage on September 13 of this year. “As of today, we have placed a hold on your account for non-payment,” reads an email from Mana submitted as an exhibit in the suit. “This means we will not be releasing any items from inventory until the account is brought current.”

According to the filing, the family has sold three of the artworks and arranged for two of them to appear in upcoming museum exhibitions—one of which will not happen if it is not delivered to the institution by Friday, October 27. Another consignment deal with a foreign gallery has allegedly fallen through because the Mugrabis were prevented from removing the work from storage. (Email correspondence, presented as an exhibit in the complaint, shows that one of the artworks was supposed to be picked up by Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska.)

The Mugrabis claim that the lack of access to their collection has brought “the family’s art business to a standstill.” According to the suit, they’ve lost the opportunity to sell “millions of dollars worth of art” to potential clients.

Mana is “holding hostage the Mugrabi Art Collection,” said David Mugrabi in an affidavit, arguing that the damages to his business far exceed the amount of the disputed bill. “Would it be fair and equitable for Con Edison to block one from living in a $10,000,000.00 residence because of a disputed $1,000.00 electric bill?” he asks in the affidavit.

Beyond denying access to the collection, the Mugrabis have also accused Mana of damaging at least 11 works it was storing. The suit identifies works by Tom Wesselmann, Richard Prince, Mark Flood, Kaws, Anh Duong, Frank Gehry, David Opdyke, Robin Rhode, Jenny Saville, and Glen Luchford, worth some $5 million, as having been affected.

The Mugrabis are seeking the immediate return of their artworks and $10 million in punitive damages, arguing that Mana’s “conduct evidenced a high degree of moral culpability and/or was so flagrant and/or so willful, wanton and/or negligent or recklessness [sic] as to imply a criminal indifference to civil obligations.” They have offered to put forward $600,000, to cover the bill from Mana, plus interest, while the case is pending to ensure the prompt release and transfer of the collection.

The Mugrabis are represented by high-profile art lawyer Aaron Richard Golub; Mana is represented by Fran Mulnick Parker. As of press time, Golub’s office had not responded to artnet New’s request for comment.

artnet News has received the following statement from Parker.

Pursuant to a written agreement, Mana Contemporary stores art and performs various related services for Fashion Concepts Inc. [Jose Mugrabi’s textile business] Because they have defaulted on payment for an extended period of time and continue to owe an amount in excess of $500,000 (plus additional fees) despite several attempts to recover same, Mana Contemporary has no choice but to enforce its lien in accordance with the Agreement.

UPDATE: The Art Newspaper reports that Mana has been ordered by the court to release five works of art in exchange for $1 million from the Mugrabis by noon on Wednesday, October 25. Should Mana fail to do so, they will have just 24 hours to return the entirety of the stored collection to the family.

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