NEW YORK—Two multimillion-dollar contemporary artworks are the focus of a lawsuit filed against the Gagosian Gallery on March 10 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by a British collector. One of the paintings at issue is by Mark Tansey. The collector claims the sale should not have been made, since the work was promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a gift. The other painting is by Richard Prince. According to the complaint, the sale of the work was not completed after the gallery allegedly received a higher offer. The suit alleges fraud, breach of contract, breach of implied and expressed warranty, deceptive and misleading business practices and repudiating a contract.
The gallery declined to comment. According to the lawsuit, in July 2009, it sold the collector, Robert Wylde, a 1981 oil painting by Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test, which had been on loan for more than a decade at the Met but was at that point in the possession of art dealer Charles Cowles, whose family owned the artwork (His gallery closed in 2009.)
Between 2004 and 2009, the gallery sold Wylde ten works of art, including a different work by Tansey, cumulatively valued at more than $5 million. Cowles sought to sell the The Innocent Eye Test, consigning it to the gallery, which had represented Tansey since 2004 according to the complaint. John Good, a director at Gagosian Gallery, contacted Wylde, and the two viewed the painting at Cowles’s SoHo apartment, according to the complaint, which also alleges that Wylde agreed to purchase The Innocent Eye Test for $2.5 million and the painting is currently in his possession.
Cowles, the complaint states, was not really the painting’s owner and was not legally permitted to sell it. The Metropolitan Museum had a 31 percent ownership interest in the work, and the remaining ownership of the Tansey rested with Cowles’s mother, Jan, who had agreed to donate or bequeath the artwork to the museum before or on her death. The Innocent Eye Test was a fractional gift to the museum, which “acquired a 1 percent interest in the painting in 1988, a 20 percent interest in 2003, and a 10 percent interest in 2004,” according to Elyse Topalian, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan and also outlined in the complaint. The credit line for the painting reads “Partial and Promised Gift of Jan Cowles and Charles Cowles, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1988.”
Topalian also noted that the painting “left the museum at the request of the co-owner” and that Charles Cowles was told by the museum of the Metropolitan’s financial interest in the artwork. Cowles claimed that he was unaware of the agreement between the museum and his mother, according to the suit.
The lawsuit was filed against the Gagosian Gallery, rather than against the consignor, because “Wylde believed that [the gallery] was acting as a principal in the sale of the Tansey” rather than purely as an agent, according to the complaint.
Wylde’s New York lawyer, Aaron Richard Golub, refused to comment on the litigation.
As to the Prince painting, the lawsuit states that in October 2009, Wylde sought to purchase another painting from the Gagosian Gallery, an ink-jet print and acrylic on canvas, Millionaire Nurse, for $2.2 million, which had been consigned to the gallery for sale, according to the complaint. The gallery sent the collector an invoice for the work on the same day that Wylde had agreed to buy it. However, two days later, the gallery notified Wylde that the consignor had changed his mind about selling the piece, and the sale could not take place. The lawsuit claims that John Good lied about the consignor’s change of heart and, in fact, the gallery “had received a better offer” than the $2.2 million.