After several years of litigation, a British court ruled today that Sotheby’s is owed repayment from the consignor of a disputed Frans Hals, which the auction house sold privately for more than $10.8 million. Five years after that 2011 sale, Sotheby’s declared the work—billed as Frans Hals’s Portrait of a Gentleman—to be a forgery, and repaid its buyer; since then, it has been seeking reimbursement from those who offered it.
The High Court of Justice in the Business and Commercial Courts of England and Wales in London decided on Tuesday that Sotheby’s had acted properly in seeking reimbursement from the London-based parties, dealer Mark Weiss, who had already reached a settlement with the house while admitting no fault, and the company Fairlight Art Ventures.
“Essentially the events that happened give rise to liability on the part of Fairlight,” the presiding judge, Robin Knowles, wrote. He added that Sotheby’s and the company “may be capable of agreement,” and that payment would be a “matter of discussion.” No exact dollar value has yet been awarded.
“We were glad to see our position completely vindicated by the court,” a representative for Sotheby’s said. “Sotheby’s was successful on every front and Fairlight is liable to Sotheby’s for failing to return the full purchase price of the painting, and has been ordered to pay costs and interest, subject only to an adjustment to reflect an early settlement reached with Mark Weiss.”
The judge did not weigh in on whether the painting is a true Hals, but wrote, “In my judgement, Sotheby’s simply dealt with the matter in accordance with the contractual framework between the various parties.” He added that the house investigated whether the work was authentic in “a perfectly proper way.”
“Fairlight Art Ventures felt that the facts of the complex case and the relevant law argued against its legal liability, and is disappointed that the judge did not recognize the merits of its case,” Fairlight said in a statement.
Sotheby’s decided to reimburse the work’s buyer, the Seattle-based collector Richard Hedreen, in 2016, after one of its experts, James Martin, identified pigments that he said were applied in the modern era. Since then, the house has been suing for those lost funds. Earlier this year, the auction house reached a $4.2 million settlement with Weiss, who has maintained that the work is “a genuine Hals and one of the finest works I have ever handled.” In a statement today, Weiss said that the painting is “not to be dismissed as a fake and I remain confident of establishing its authenticity.”
Previously, David Kowitz, the owner of Fairlight, had claimed that his company was involved in the consignment of the painting only as a “financier,” not as a partner, and distanced himself from Weiss at a hearing earlier this year, saying that he is “not the kind of man you would want to partner [with].”
Before the court, Fairlight had argued that it was not liable in the case, since it was Weiss who had actually consigned the painting. The court’s ruling called lawyers’ evidence allegedly separating Fairlight from Weiss “not as it complete as it might be,” and added, “The interest of MWL [Mark Weiss Limited, the dealer’s company] and Fairlight in the painting was indivisible.”
While Knowles did not rule on the work’s authenticity, he wrote, “Whether by Frans Hals or not, it is to be hoped that its intrinsic qualities will not be ignored, and that it may be enjoyed for what it is, which is a fine painting.”
Update, 12/12/19, 9:15 a.m.: This story has been updated to include a statement from Fairlight Art Ventures.