An alleged standoff between members of the board of Marlborough Gallery, one of New York’s most esteemed art spaces, and the family that runs the enterprise has resulted in two dueling lawsuits.
Dealer Max Levai, who formerly served as the gallery’s president, has sued Marlborough and two of its board members, Stanley N. Bergman and Franz Plutschow, accusing them of having led a “scheme” that involved alleged attempts to ruin his reputation and to hack his Instagram account. The suit was filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York on Tuesday.
“The Company and defendants Bergman and Plutschow’s defamatory statements have harmed [Levai] by causing, among other things, third parties to refuse to engage in any new business dealings with plaintiff, lost revenue and profits, increased expenses, legal fees, and costs expended to mitigate the impact of the Company and defendants Bergman and Plutschow’s dishonesty,” Levai’s suit reads. Levai is seeking at least $10.8 million in damages.
On the same day, in the same court, Marlborough Gallery sued Levai and his father Pierre Levai as well as Pascal Spengemann, the gallery’s former vice president, and former chief financial officer John Helmrich. Among the second lawsuit’s claims are allegations that Pierre Levai withheld artworks while his son mismanaged funds and Spengemann and Helmrich “assisted” Max Levai with plans to open a new gallery.
Marlborough is seeking at least $8 million in damages. Its suit reads, “The Levai Defendants were engaged in a pattern of self-interested and self-enriching transactions and an insistence on thwarting and undermining the responsible management of Marlborough, all for the benefit of Max Levai and Pierre Levai and to the detriment of Marlborough.”
Marc E. Kasowitz, a lawyer representing Max Levai, said in a statement, “The Marlborough Gallery, Stanley Bergman, and Franz Plutschow have egregiously sought to destroy Max Levai’s exceptional reputation and career. We look forward to vindicating our client’s reputation in court and holding them accountable for the damage they have caused.”
A representative for Marlborough Gallery did not respond to a request for comment.
The news of the suits comes as Marlborough Gallery, which first opened in London in 1940 and expanded to New York 23 years later, is in the midst of a period of rapid change. This past June, just a year after plans to consolidate its New York galleries at an expanded Chelsea space were announced, Marlborough said it was closing down its operations in the city permanently.
Max Levai, who was then president of Marlborough, claimed in a statement that the decision to do so had been made while his father, chairman of the gallery’s board, had been hospitalized and “incapacitated” while battling the coronavirus. According to an Artnet News report in June, a scuttled attempt to expand Marlborough into an adjacent space previously operated by Cheim & Read gallery heightened tensions between the Levais and the board. “My top priority is to protect our artists and their work,” Max Levai said at the time.
Marlborough’s suit alleges that Max Levai’s statement related to his father’s health was “untrue,” claiming that “Max Levai’s false and misleading statements to the press were designed to aggrandize the Levai Defendants to the detriment of the Marlborough Gallery.”
Max Levai’s suit also alleges that Marlborough is, in fact, not closed. It claims that four artists and estates that Marlborough works with—Tom Otterness, Ahmed Alsoudani, the George Rickey Estate, and Richard Estes—told Max Levai that its operations were still running. Marlborough’s suit refers to a “winding down” of business, but does not state whether it has yet permanently closed. According to Max Levai’s suit, once Marlborough announced plans to shutter in June, Max Levai approached the board with a proposal to acquire works in in the gallery’s holdings so that he could sell them at his own Alone Gallery in Wainscott, New York. After that, the board “ceased all engagement” with Max Levai and then “set out to destroy [his] reputation,” according to the suit. Max Levai claims that, as part of that campaign, the gallery seized control of his personal Instagram account. He also claims that the gallery has “failed” to return “approximately 25 artworks” worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that are his property.
Marlborough claims that its board became aware that an Alex Katz work had been “wrongfully consigned” to Alone Gallery at an allegedly discounted value, and that Spengemann and Helmrich were “knowledgable” of the sale. The suit accuses Max Levai of having continued to contact other employees at Marlborough in an effort to aid Alone Gallery’s business. It also accuses Pierre Levai of having withheld 23 works and keeping them with Marcia Levine, with whom he allegedly has a “close—and on information and belief intimate—relationship.”
Marlborough has long been considered one of the top art galleries in New York. On its website, it lists Frank Auerbach, Alice Aycock, Red Grooms, R. B. Kitaj, Paula Rego, and more on its roster.
Update, 9/15/20, 4:50 p.m.: After this article was published on September 14, ARTnews became aware that, in addition to Max Levai’s suit, Marlborough had filed suit against Max Levai and others. This article has been updated to reflect that.