NEW YORK—The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York approved an agreement by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., to return an oil painting by Russian-born French artist Chaim Soutine (1893–1943) to the estate of a Canadian woman whose heirs claim she was duped into selling the work for a below-market price. The settlement, approved by Judge Laura Taylor Swain last month, allows the heirs to repurchase the painting from the National Gallery.
In a lawsuit, heirs of Lorette Jolles Shefner of Montreal had claimed that she had been misled into selling Piece of Beef, 1923, one of ten paintings in a series depicting carcasses, for $1 million in the spring of 2004. By the fall of that year, the suit alleges, two art experts, Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow—who are the authors of a Soutine catalogue raisonné—had resold the painting to the National Gallery for just under $2 million.
Shefner died in 2007, and in May of last year, her heirs filed suit against Tuchman and Dunow, claiming that the experts did not disclose to her the fair market prices for the artist’s work, offering her misleading information about paintings of comparable value. The suit alleged that Tuchman and Dunow failed “to disclose their significant conflict of interest in the transaction,” and that they represented to Jolles Shefner that the “market for Soutine works was in decline.” In their response to the suit, filed in June of last year, Tuchman and Dunow denied those claims, but admitted that “each received a commission stemming from the sale of the painting” to the National Gallery, which was brokered by the Paris-based Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière.
The lawsuit also named the National Gallery and Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière as defendants, arguing that the museum was not sufficiently diligent in determining how the two experts came into possession of the painting, and alleging that Cazeau-Béraudière “was at all relevant times aware of the fraudulent methods by which Tuchman and Dunow induced Ms. Jolles Shefner to sell the Painting to or through them.”
Also named in the suit was Lontrel Trading, which according to court documents “was identified to Ms. Jolles Shefner as the purchaser” of the painting. The lawsuit alleges that Lontrel “assisted Tuchman and Dunow in their efforts to induce Ms. Jolles Shefner to sell the Painting and then resell the painting to the NGA,” helping Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière transport the work to New York, where it was shown to the National Gallery buyers in a luxury suite at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée.
Lorette Shefner had purchased Piece of Beef from a gallery in Paris in 1981 for $68,000. Around the time that she sold it, in 2004, Le chasseur de Chez Maxim, 1925, a painting by Soutine of a restaurant doorman, sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $6.7 million. Auction prices for works by Soutine have reached as high as $17.2 million, which was realized for the oil painting Man in a Red Scarf, 1921, at Sotheby’s in London in 2007.
Under the settlement, Shefner’s heirs, Barry Shefner, and Ariela Braun, will repurchase the painting for $1.975 million. The National Gallery was to be paid $1.325 million upon approval of the settlement, with the balance to be paid within seven years, during which time the work will remain in the museum. Upon completion of the payment, title to the work will be transferred back to the Shefner estate. Under the settlement, the court ordered Tuchman and Dunow to pay the National Gallery $210,000 and to list the Shefner heirs as the owners of the work in the provenance in any future editions of the catalogue raisonné.
In an e-mail to ARTnewsletter, Deborah Ziska, chief of press and public information at the National Gallery, said that “the Gallery admitted no negligence” in the settlement and that the payment by the Shefner heirs to the gallery was “part of a mutually agreeable resolution to this matter.” Neither Tuchman, Dunow nor their attorney responded to ARTnewsletter’s request for comment. A representative of Cazeau-Béraudière declined to comment.
“The defendants did not provide accurate information” to Shefner, said Karl Geercken, the U.S. lawyer representing the Shefner family in the complaint. “They used their expertise to take advantage of her, to put it simply.”