10 of the Art World’s Most Powerful Lawyers
They navigate an increasingly litigious art world.
Consiglieres, legal angels, rainmakers, and power-brokers. These are just some of the labels used today to characterize the art world’s top lawyers, well-heeled intermediaries who wield increasing influence in an art world that has become more fraught—and litigious—the more money that runs through it.
Despite the visibility of their high-profile clients, most high-stakes practitioners of art law play their cards close to their shirt monograms, knowing that, as a rule, lawyers should not be in the business of disclosing client names or information. Another reason lawyers keep their own counsel these days: According to the Emory Law Journal, US judges have routinely imposed gag orders on attorneys in well-publicized cases in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial. Despite the winning popularity of AMC’s television show, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the art world presently boasts few headline-grabbing Johnny Cochrans.
Yet the role of legal advisers has never been more crucial to the success of the art business. According to several specialists, it’s important to distinguish attorneys who are master dealmakers from those who are expert litigators when assessing the influence of art lawyers. “You really don’t want the attorney who just deposed Gagosian also being the one who advises on tax efficient sales strategies,” says one expert. Despite the fact that many art lawyers practice in both areas—defined broadly as transactions and litigation—it’s rare, experts say, to find a professional who does both well.
Whatever the case, most large law offices have art law practices today—a fact that attests to the growth of this booming métier. Whether it’s navigating hot-button issues like estate planning, copyright law or suing the yacht off a prominent multimillionaire, art lawyers are in demand like no time previously. In approaching this subject, artnet News asked a few well-known attorneys who wished to remain anonymous for suggestions to arrive at an informed list. Here, then, is a non-exclusive but representative roster of some of the most powerful lawyers in the art world today*. (Nota bene: It’s in alphabetical order, so don’t sue me.)
1. Jo Backer Laird
Now at the white shoe firm Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, Backer Laird spent 10 years as senior vice president and general counsel of Christie’s, where she was in charge of legal issues relating to the company’s business in North and South America.
Presently, her firm represents ex-Christie’s specialist Guy Bennett, who heads up Pelham Holdings—a Qatari royal family agent—in the custody fight with Larry Gagosian over Picasso’s $100 million Bust of a Woman (Marie-Thérèse). In February, the feuding parties reached a temporary agreement: The bust was subsequently delivered to Gagosian by MoMA—where it had been recently included in the “Picasso Sculpture” exhibition—pending a settlement of the dispute.
2. John Cahill
Previously general counsel and senior vice president for Phillips de Pury & Company, Cahill, founder of Cahill Partners, has handled a number of high-profile art-related lawsuits over a nearly thirty-year career. In 2008, he successfully sued internet mogul Halsey Minor on behalf of Sotheby’s for reneging on a $6.64 million payment for three artworks. In 2012, he represented the Eggleston Artistic Trust in the suit brought by New York financier and collector Jonathan Sobel in the wake of the photographer’s $6 million Christie’s sale of newly editioned photographs.
More recently, Cahill represented John Howard and Martin and Sharleen Cohen in their lawsuits against Ann Freedman, Michael Hammer, Glafira Rosales and the Knoedler Gallery; their case was settled three days after Domenico DeSole settled his own suit against the same defendants.
3. Gregory A. Clarick
Clarick’s professional focus is on complex commercial litigation and art, entertainment, and intellectual property law, but he is best known today for being the lead litigator—alongside fellow attorneys Aaron Crowell and Emily Reisbaum—for plaintiffs Eleanor and Domenico De Sole, the couple who bought a fake $8.3 million Rothko in 2004 from Ann Freedman and Knoedler & Co. gallery. The case, settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, is widely interpreted to have been a triumph for Clarick and his firm, Clarick, Gueron, Reisbaum LLP.
Described as having an efficiently “chipper” court demeanor, Clarick has also represented artists Takashi Murakami (against his ex-dealer Marianne Boesky), Christopher Williams (against fabricator Douglas Parker Studio) and James Turrell (against former dealer Michael Hue-Williams).
4. Thomas C. Danziger and Charles T. Danziger
The two brothers are founding partners of Danziger, Danziger & Muro, LLP, where they specialize in art, luxury brands, and high-end restaurant groups. Among their clients are corporations, museums, artists, galleries, and collectors that include the following: Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Piaget, Montblanc, UNIQLO, Issey Miyake, David Bouley, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mariko Mori, and what the firm’s website refers to as “numerous art collectors, galleries, private art dealers, and not-for-profit institutions.”
Both brothers have written extensively on controversial aspects of art law for artnet News as well as for Art + Auction Magazine.
5. David Baum
The secretary and outside general counsel for the Cy Twombly Foundation, Baum is also justly celebrated for an equally high-profile achievement: He is Larry Gagosian’s legal scourge. In 2012, Baum sued Gagosian on behalf of nonagenarian Jan Cowles for the “unlawful” sale of Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Girl In Mirror (1964). The case was settled for an undisclosed amount, but not before revealing crucial information about how the exceedingly-private Gagosian does business. This data included emails from the gallery that disclosed that the seller, Charles Cowles—the plaintiff’s son—was “in terrible straits and needs cash,” and subsequently soliciting from the buyer a “cruel and offensive offer.”
In a related case, Baum settled for the elderly Cowles against Gagosian for $4.4 million after it was revealed that Charles had also sold The Innocent Eye Test (1981) by Mark Tansey through the gallery—despite the fact that the painting was promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it presently hangs.
6. Aaron Richard Golub
The closest thing art law has to Johnny Cochran, this high-powered attorney prefers tabloid column inches to lawyerly reserve. Golub has represented Donald Trump, sued Martin Scorsese, and counted several of Warhol’s Factory denizens among his clients. In addition to being a prominent attorney, Golub wrote The Big Cut, a best-selling crime thriller, and produced “Factory Girl,” a movie about Edie Sedgwick.
On the legal front, Golub once sued David Zwirner on behalf of Miami real estate developer Craig Robins (for purportedly putting him on a gallery “black list”), represented wronged wife Tracey Hejailan-Amon in her suit against ex-husband Maurice Amon in (he reportedly absconded with the couple’s $25 million art collection), and took UK dealer Judith Hess to court in 2015 for unpaid fees on a multimillion-dollar Monet deal. A few weeks ago, Golub’s name also surfaced in the press as the Nahmad family’s attorney. The case in question involves the disputed ownership of Amedeo Modigliani’s 1918 portrait Seated Man With a Cane, which was recently disclosed by the Panama Papers as being the property of the Nahmads.
7. Ralph Lerner
Once the world’s most powerful art lawyer, Lerner was suspended from practicing law in New York State in 2013 for a year for improperly charging clients for $50,000 in car-service rides for himself and his family. In September of the same year, Lerner was also accused of fraudulently taking more than $750,000 in fees from the Cy Twombly Foundation. Previous to these findings, Lerner’s clients included art world heavies like Gagosian, the Sonnabend estate, and the megacollector Steven A. Cohen. Curiously, Lerner’s comeback has been as an art advisor, a jujitsu career move that taps directly into his legal and deal-making experience. According to his current website, Lerner has “advised and negotiated more public auction sales and private transactions of art over the past 40 years than anyone in the United States, including numerous sales and purchases in excess of $100,000,000.” That’s a lot of zeroes!
8. Jonathan A. Olsoff
Worldwide general counsel and general secretary at Sotheby’s, Olsoff was promoted to the auction house’s top legal job by incoming CEO Tad Smith in May 2015, after nearly 20 years as leader of worldwide litigation and general counsel for the Americas. Before his lengthy tenure at Sotheby’s, Olsoff worked at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, a major corporate law firm, where he represented David Wojnarowicz in his successful 1989 suit against the Reverend Donald Wildmon and the American Family Foundation (Olsoff is the brother of P.P.O.W. gallery’s Wendy Olsoff). More recently, Olsoff went on the record to protect the right of auction houses to keep the names of sellers in a transaction anonymous. Asked about a 2013 appeals court ruling that appears to mandate auction houses end their practice of keeping sellerss names a secret, Olsoff said he found the decision “narrow and technical.”
9. John Silberman
Described as so discreet that he does not even have his own website, Silberman is—hands down—our experts’ vote for most powerful art law attorney. Besides representing artists James Turrell and Richard Serra, Silberman is best known for playing a crucial role in the handling of the affairs of Willem de Kooning. In 1989, he represented Lisa de Kooning, the artist’s daughter, and John Eastman, the son of the artist’s ex-lawyer, in their application to become De Kooning’s conservators.
Silberman is currently president of the Willem de Kooning Foundation—making him the principal individual charged with securing De Kooning’s legacy. His firm, John Silberman Associates PC, was founded in 1996. It specializes in contracts, corporate matters, copyright, intellectual property, tax and estate planning (including wills and trusts), estate administration, and non-profit organizations law.
10. E. Randol (Randy) Schoenberg
Played by Ryan Reynolds in the movie Woman in Gold, Schoenberg is currently the recipient of the biggest art restitution payout ever: around $139 million. Schoenberg began working for the late Maria Altmann, the sole surviving relative of the original owners of Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I (1907), to recover the painting and five other Klimt works from Vienna’s National Belvedere Museum—where they had been stashed by the Nazis in 1941. He did so on contingency. He would receive no payment if he lost the case; if he won, he would be entitled to 40 percent of the value of the paintings.
Though legal experts thought Schoenberg would never be able to sue a foreign government in the US successfully, the junior lawyer took Altmann’s claim all the way to the Supreme Court and won. In 2006, Maria Altmann was awarded rightful ownership of the artworks in an Austrian court. Ronald Lauder bought the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and installed it at New York’s Neue Galerie. Besides emerging victorious from the greatest David v. Goliath battle in art law history, Schoenberg served as the President of Los Angeles’s Museum of the Holocaust, to which he has donated millions.
*Additional highly-influential art lawyers suggested by artnet News’s legal sources include Amy Adler (NYU School of Law), Daniel McClean (Howard, Kennedy, London), Daniel Weiner (Hughes, Hubbard & Reed), Luke Nikas (Boies, Schiller & Flexner), Matthew S. Dontzin (the Dontzin Law Firm LLP), Joshua Roth (United Talent Agency), Steven Schindler (Schindler Cohen & Hochman LLP), Diana Wierbicki (Withersworldwide), the law firm Herrick Feinstein LLP, and Donn Zaretsky (John Silberman Associates).
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