As an art lawyer, I was disappointed when De Sole et. al v. Knoedler Gallery, the high-profile case against the Knoedler Gallery and its director, Ann Freedman, ended in a settlement of undisclosed terms last week. It is exceedingly rare for forgery cases to go to trial. And most cases that do are certainly not at the level of complexity, value, and prestige represented in this case. With Wednesday’s settlement of De Sole’s claims against Knoedler, we missed an opportunity to examine the art market today and for Judge Gardephe to render an opinion commenting on this market’s often opaque practices—an opinion which could have discredited practices leading to deep-seated problems in this industry, created more significant disincentives to selling forgeries, and fostered greater art market transparency in the future.
The case began in 2011, when the Knoedler & Company gallery was shuttered, amidst allegations that it sold upwards of $80 million in forged paintings. The forgeries were consigned or sold to Knoedler by Glafira Rosales, a woman representing the owner of an anonymous Swiss collector, “Mr. X” but were, in fact, the work of Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese artist based in Queens who has since fled to China. The De Sole’s case centered on a fake painting purported to be the work of
, which Domenico and Eleanore De Sole purchased from Knoedler in 2004 for $8.3 million. Ten cases, in total, were brought against Knoedler and its parent company, 8-31 Holdings, Inc., four of which remain pending. Due to Domenico De Sole’s role as the Chairman of Sotheby’s and the $25 million in damages sought in this suit, it was arguably the most significant matter brought to trial in relation to the Knoedler forgeries.
Perhaps the last art authentication litigation to receive such frenzied publicity in the U.S. was nearly a century ago, in 1929. The case, Hahn v. Duveen, examined whether a statement about a painting was defamatory, and the trial provided the public with insights into the operations of the art world. A primary reason that forgery matters do not reach trial stems from publicity concerns of all parties involved; galleries, dealers, and auction houses do not want to receive negative public attention stemming from the sale of forged works, and the current owners of those works do not want to destroy the value of artwork in their collections. In the instance that the court finds the seller not liable, the current owner will then be left with a virtually worthless object or one that has a shadow of doubt cast on its authenticity.