ARTnewsletter Archive

Disputed Leonardo Drawing At Center of Legal Battle

In May, Swiss collector Jeanne Marchig filed a lawsuit against Christie’s alleging breach of fiduciary duty, breach of warranty and claims of negligence, more than a decade after a drawing she had consigned to the house—and which sold for less than $22,000—was reattributed by several experts as a work of Leonardo da Vinci.

NEW YORK—In May, Swiss collector Jeanne Marchig filed a lawsuit against Christie’s alleging breach of fiduciary duty, breach of warranty and claims of negligence, more than a decade after a drawing she had consigned to the house—and which sold for less than $22,000—was reattributed by several experts as a work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Christie’s is seeking to have the suit dismissed, arguing that the statute of limitations has expired, and that the technology used in reattributing the work was nonexistent when it was auctioned, in 1998. The auction house also told Marchig in a letter that it is not convinced the work is by Leonardo. The case is being closely watched by auctioneers, art experts and collectors alike.

Marchig consigned the drawing, a pen-and-ink on vellum of a young girl in profile, to Christie’s in 1997. She told the house’s experts that her late husband had believed it was a work by Domenico Ghirlandaio from the 15th century, according to her suit. Her theory was “summarily rejected” by François Borne, then Christie’s Old Master expert, who “reached his opinion after about fifteen minutes of examination,” the complaint states. Borne dated it to the 19th century and attributed it to an anonymous German artist, court records state.

The drawing was sold to New York dealer Kate Ganz for $21,850 in January 1998. Collector Peter Silverman acquired it from Ganz in 2007, for $22,000. In a story in ARTnews last January, Silver­man said he bought the work on behalf of a Swiss collector and insisted he is not the owner. The drawing has been insured against loss or damage for more than $100million, according to court filings.

Fingerprint a Mark of the Master?

In her complaint, Marchig says she has since learned that “the drawing is almost certainly by Leonardo da Vinci, and that numerous respected scholars and scientific testing have so attributed it, and placed its origins in Italy in the late 15th or early 16th century.” Among the evidence cited in her suit is a fingerprint on the drawing, “which matches that on a painting known to be by Leonardo da Vinci,” and “recent carbon dating by an organization in Switzerland,” indicating the drawing is “from the 15th or 16th century, not the 19th, as Mr. Borne has insisted.”

Marchig’s complaint also cites a book published last April “setting forth in great detail the artistic and scientific evidence for the attribution”: La Bella Principessa: The Story of the New Master­piece by Leonardo da Vinci, by Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, and Pascal Cotte, the chief technical officer and cofounder of Lumière Technology in Paris, who invented “the first multi-spectral high-definition camera,” which, according to the suit, revealed a fragment of a fingerprint on the drawing. Montreal-based art expert Peter Paul Biro subsequently found the fingerprint to be “highly comparable” to a fingerprint on a work known to be by Leonardo.

In a four-page statement dated September 2008, and attached as an exhibit to Marchig’s complaint, Nicholas Turner, a former curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, says that “based on its style and left-handed shading, it can only be one of two things—an original work by Leonardo da Vinci or a copy, pastiche or fake made to look like an autograph portrait by Leonardo. The extremely high quality of this mixed media portrait and the evidence of the scientific tests undertaken so far point resoundingly in favour of the first conclusion.” He writes his report is “based on research commissioned from me by the owner’s agent,” and adds, “I have no commercial interest in this work.”

In a letter written to Marchig last September, Sandra Cobden, Christie’s senior counsel and head of dispute resolution, told the collector, “We too were quite surprised to learn about this new attribution when contacted by Peter Silverman, the current owner of the painting. … To be blunt, at the end of our investigation, we remain unconvinced of his claims, and, more importantly, the new attribution.”

Cobden further notes that Biro, “who apparently matched a fingerprint on the painting to one of Leonardo’s known prints is very controversial,” as well as the fact that “most of the proponents of the new attribution have a significant financial stake in their conclusion.” She also points out that the high-resolution scans provided by Lumière Technology and the fingerprint analysis “weren’t available when Christie’s sold your painting.”

Her letter continues: “The law is well settled and clear in both United Kingdom and the United States that an auction house is not legally liable for any change in attribution that is based on new technology that was not available at the time the original attribution was made.”

Legal Wrangling

Christie’s responded to Marchig’s suit with a motion to dismiss the case in late May, arguing that the statute of limitations had run out, and repeating the arguments made in Cobden’s letter to Marchig. The house further argues that the sale was covered under the consignment agreement, which states that Christie’s “makes no representations or warranties to Seller with respect to the Property, its authenticity, condition, or otherwise.”

In a filing opposing Christie’s motion to dismiss dated July 13, Marchig’s New York–based attorney, Richard A. Altman, argues that “any questions of the nature and scope of Christie’s duty, and whether they breached that duty, are properly ones for the jury, and not the subject of a motion to dismiss.” Altman also argues that the statute of limitations has not expired, since it commenced to run when Marchig learned of the attribution of the drawing, in 2009, not before. If plaintiffs had filed suit within three years of the 1998 sale, “what would they possibly have claimed in such a suit?” the filing reads. Marchig could not have claimed damages “until such time as the attribution of the Drawing to Leonardo.” Earlier this month the house filed a memorandum in response to Marchig’s, in which it argues that all of Marchig’s claims “accrued at the time of the 1998 sale.” Oral arguments on the motion are pending.