Courtroom Art Beef: Gagosian Gallery Sued for Selling Cow Painting Partially Owned by the Met Museum

Courtroom Art Beef: Gagosian Gallery Sued for Selling Cow Painting Partially Owned by the Met Museum

The Gagosian Gallery is already fighting one lawsuit, from a woman who claims she was injured and traumatized when forcibly ejected by police from an Anselm Kiefer show last December. Now the powerhouse gallery has a second unusual legal battle on its hands. Robert Wylde, a Monaco-based British collector, filed suit in Manhattan last Thursday regarding his 2009 purchase of a 1981 Mark Tansey painting, "The Innocent Eye Test," claiming that the gallery did not tell him that the Metropolitan Museum — where the painting had once been on display — already owned 31 percent of the work, and had been promised that it would eventually own the painting in full.

The lawsuit contends that a Gagosian representative took Wylde to see "The Innocent Eye Test" at the apartment of Charles Cowles, the former publisher of Artforum, who had recently closed his well-known art gallery, the New York Times reports. The suit states that Wylde paid $2.5 million for the painting on August 5 of 2009 and received it shortly thereafter.

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But in spring 2010 a lawyer for the Gagosian gallery got in touch with Wylde and told him that the gallery had learned that the Met already owned a third of the painting, the suit alleges. Wylde still has the painting and is seeking several million dollars in damages. The suit also contends that the gallery had agreed to sell him a Richard Prince painting the same year for $2.2 million but canceled the sale because it got a higher offer.

According to the New York Times, Gagosian representative Virginia Coleman said in a statement that the gallery would "vigorously defend itself." Regarding the sale, the statement continues, the owner "represented that he had clear title to the painting, which was viewed for sale in his apartment, and the gallery acted in good faith at all times in selling the painting."

Contacted by the New York Times, Cowles admitted that the mix-up was his fault. When the museum returned the painting to him, he said, "I didn't even think about whether the Met owned part of it or not." (His mother, Jan Cowles, also had a stake in the painting at some point, but it is not clear from the court papers the extent of her ownership at the time of the sale.) "One day I saw it on the wall and thought, 'Hey, I could use money,' and so I decided to sell it," Cowles told the paper. "And now it's a big mess."

The painting, a large-scale realistic depiction of art specialists showing a painting of a cow to a cow while an observer with a clipboard takes notes, has long been interpreted as a humorous comment on art criticism and pseudo-scientific realist art dogma. On the Met's Web site, it is listed as "partial and promised gift of Jan Cowles and Charles Cowles, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1988," with the added mention "not on view."

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