>Christie’s Goes to Court

>It is true, dear reader, that The Courtier did not blog yesterday, due to a panoply of work-related matters which kept him running about all day long; he begs your forgiveness. Sometimes trying to both keep up with the law and with cultural events can lead to the latter having to yield to the former. However, today we have an interesting story in the press about the two coming together.

As the U.K. goes to the polls today – The Courtier always keeps a close eye on the returns for the Monster Raving Loony Party – what may get buried in the British news reports is word of an enormous lawsuit filed against British auction house Christie’s. Regular readers of these scribblings will recall that back in October, I wrote about a portrait drawing of a young lady in Renaissance dress, which was examined by experts using advanced scientific techniques and determined by some to have come from the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci. Christie’s part in the story came in 1997-1998, when the auction house accepted and then sold the piece in New York, attributing it to an unknown 19th century German painter.

From what I can tell in the press, having no access to the court’s filing system, the plaintiffs in this suit are the owner of the drawing at the time it was consigned for sale at Christie’s, and the animal rights foundation she helps to run. Though I do not have access to the complaint which was filed, I will probably find myself correct to guess that the piece was sold in order to raise funds for this foundation, which therefore would be a party to any litigation involving the sale – particularly with respect to whether any damages can be substantiated in court. According to reports the complaint alleges that, inter alia (as attorneys like to say), Christie’s failed to exercise due care in valuing the piece; press reports say that the plaintiff’s claim on this score is that Christie’s did not use scientific and other methods in evaluating the drawing, which were subsequently tried this past autumn and led to the Da Vinci attribution.

As the plaintiff only filed suit yesterday, Christie’s has not yet filed what is usually referred to as an “answer” to the complaint. In their answer, Christie’s (as well as any other defendants named in the suit who will file their respective answers) will indicate their positions on the plaintiffs’ claims. A spokesman for the auction house has already indicated that Christie’s disagrees with the plaintiffs’ allegations, but this is merely a press statement, not a legal filing.

Putting aside the array of issues that may come up in this matter, one very interesting possibility here if the case proceeds to trial is that the court will be faced with what I often like to call “dueling experts”. Each side will retain an expert or experts to testify, based on their training, expertise and experience, with respect to the matters at issue. In this case, that means art experts, for one thing; presumably the pool will include art historians, art preservation technicians, academics, and so on.

The art experts will then, as I term it, duel for the court, parrying and thrusting by comparing and contrasting each others’ opinions. In doing so they will be trying to assist the parties and the court by providing informed opinions on the drawing. The finder of fact will then have to take this evidence into consideration and accept or reject it, in order to make their decision.

Admittedly The Courtier is going to sound like something of a nerd for saying so, but surely it would be an amazing opportunity to sit in and hear some of this testimony at trial. It is very rare that a case of this nature, involving an in-depth examination of the life and work of one of the great Old Masters, comes up in a courtroom setting. Should the case go to trial you can be assured, gentle reader, that I will pass along whatever happens to appear in news outlets about this.

Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse,
U.S. District Court
Southern District of New York

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