NEW YORK—A Connecticut superior court judge has ruled that newsprint magnate Peter Brant is the rightful owner of Andy Warhol’s Red Elvis, 1962, a nearly 6-foot-tall silkscreen on canvas depicting Elvis Presley’s face repeated 36 times. Kerstin Lindholm, a Greenwich, Conn., resident and art collector, filed the civil lawsuit three years ago, claiming that Brant had improperly acquired the painting in 2000. Lindholm is presently appealing the decision.
Lindholm’s longtime Swedish art dealer Anders Malmberg was convicted of fraud and embezzlement by a Stockholm court in 2003 for selling the work to Brant without Lindholm’s permission. Malmberg was ordered by the Swedish court to pay Lindholm $4.6 million and is serving a three-year prison sentence.
Connecticut judge Chase Rogers, however, ruled last month that Brant had acted with due diligence in purchasing the work, having hired an attorney, conducted a lien search and consulted the Art Loss Register, a database of stolen art and antiques, and therefore is now the rightful owner.
The case has highlighted the often convoluted nature of art transactions; it also has revealed the extent of Brant’s involvement in the art market. The judge’s Aug. 29 ruling notes, for example, that from 1999-2000 alone, Brant purchased 128 Warhols and sold 35 works by the artist through his art-dealing company Twentieth Century. Since 1968 Brant has participated in some 300 transactions involving Warhol’s work, the ruling states.
Red Elvis, in fact, was one of the first Warhols Brant purchased when he was a college student in 1969. He paid from $9,000/10,000 for the piece and sold it shortly thereafter for $35,000. The painting subsequently was bought and sold several times until 1987, when Lindholm acquired it for $300,000. (Before its purchase by Lindholm, the ruling notes, the painting was damaged while in the custody of a New York art gallery, sustaining a 16-inch diagonal tear that despite restoration was still visible to experts consulted by the court.)
The picture was sold to Brant five years ago, after Lindholm had loaned it to a traveling Warhol exhibition organized in 1998 by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Brant, a Guggenheim trustee who was also a lender to that exhibition, helped to arrange for Lindholm’s loan of Red Elvis to the show through Swedish dealer Stellan Holm.
In late 1999, while the work was still on loan to the Guggenheim, Malmberg and Holm approached Brant about purchasing it. Malmberg asserted that Lindholm, then in the process of a divorce, had sold the painting to him. Brant agreed in February 2000 to purchase it for $2.9 million.
But Malmberg never informed Lindholm of the sale. Instead he convinced Lindholm that she should loan the work to Copenhagen’s Louisiana Museum after the Guggenheim exhibition ended in Porto, Portugal. Lindholm wrote a letter to the Guggenheim authorizing the museum to release the painting to Malmberg so that he could arrange for shipment of the work to Denmark. But instead of delivering the work to the museum, Malmberg delivered it to Brant in April 2000.
Months later, the ruling states, Malmberg falsely informed Lindholm that Red Elvis had not arrived at the Copenhagen museum in time to be part of the exhibition, and in January 2001 he proposed that Lindholm sell the painting to a fictitious buyer in Japan for $4.6 million. Lindholm agreed to the sale, but while she was waiting for the proceeds, she read a news article reporting that Malmberg had sold Red Elvis to Brant.
Lindholm confronted Malmberg, who denied the report. But after a year of waiting for the $4.6 million owed her, she filed suit against Brant; subsequently she also filed a complaint with the Swedish authorities to have Malmberg prosecuted.
Lindholm’s lawyer Lawrence Weinstein, of the New York law firm Proskauer Rose, says that Malmberg, who is in bankruptcy proceedings, has not paid the court-ordered $4.6 million to Lindholm. Malmberg, says the attorney, “appears to be judgement-proof.”