NEW YORK—Art collector Jan Cowles, mother of former Manhattan gallery owner and former Art Forum publisher Charles Cowles, has sued New York’s Gagosian Gallery over the sale of her 1964 enamel on metal painting titled Girl in Mirror, by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Cowles claims the sale was made without her consent or authorization and that the sale price was considerably less than the fair market value of the painting, according to court papers.
This is the second time the Gagosian gallery has been sued in connection with the sale of a work from the art collection of Jan Cowles (ANL, 3/22/11). According to court documents, both sales were arranged by her son Charles.
The most recent lawsuit, filed on Jan. 18 in New York Supreme Court, charges the gallery and its owner, Larry Gagosian, with fraud, unjust enrichment and breach of fiduciary duty. The suit seeks up to $10 million in punitive damages.
Gagosian gallery attorney Hollis Gonerka Bart of Withers Bergman called the claims “specious.” Bart said: “Jan Cowles and her representatives, who were in the best position to monitor Charles Cowles and his activities, have only themselves to blame that they failed to protect her art from the reach of her art dealer son, who had full access to her home and personal effects.”
According to court documents, the painting was originally acquired by Jan’s late husband, Gardner Cowles, in 1983 from the Castelli Gallery.
The Gagosian gallery is alleged to have sold the artwork in the latter half of 2009 for $2 million, considerably less than the “$3 million or more” that the dealer claimed he would be able to achieve, according to the complaint. The buyer is referred to as “John Doe,” an unidentified American collector, although Jan Cowles’s attorney David Baum told ARTnewsletter he hoped that the actual price and identity of any buyer would be unearthed during the discovery process.
According to Charles’s account, as stated in the complaint, Gagosian claimed “that the Lichtenstein Work had been shipped to potential purchasers on multiple occasions, and that multiple buyers had declined to purchase the work because it was badly damaged,” resulting in the lower price.
The Gagosian gallery took a 50 percent commission on the sale, or $1 million, which was twice the amount that Larry Gagosian had initially stipulated, court papers say.
In addition to her claim that the dealer had no right to take possession of the Lichtenstein, Jan Cowles also alleges that her work was not in a damaged condition. One “of Gagosian’s gallery staff made intake notes on the condition of the Lichtenstein Work—which is common practice in the art industry for valuable works delivered on consignment—and the notes reflect no significant damage,” the lawsuit states.
It was Charles who agreed to accept the $2 million price for the Lichtenstein, based on the Gagosian gallery’s claim that it was damaged, as well as the higher commission, the claim states.