In War Over a Motherwell "Spanish Elegy," the Painting Is Modern But the Lawsuits Are Byzantine

In War Over a Motherwell "Spanish Elegy," the Painting Is Modern But the Lawsuits Are Byzantine
A portrait of Robert Motherwell
(Courtesy of Flickr via kamikazecactus)
Authenticity disputes are never pretty — particularly when they involve works that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — but a debate over a contested Robert Motherwell painting has exploded into a truly head-spinning tangle of claims and counterclaims. At the center of it all is New York art dealer Julian Weissman, who has found himself the target of a series of lawsuits surrounding his alleged misrepresentation of the origins of a painting by the Abstract Expressionist master.

Weissman's legal woes began in February of last year when the Ireland-based Killala Fine Art Ltd. filed suit against him, alleging that the 1953 Motherwell painting "Spanish Elegy 1953.P.24" that he sold the gallery for $650,000 in 2007 is a fake. Killala's attorney, Dan Weiner, has said that scientific analysis revealed pigments present in the painting that did not exist in the 1950s.


The suit, filed in New York Southern District Court, also names the New York-based Dedalus Foundation, an organization established by Motherwell before his death to promote understanding of modern art. Killala purchased "Spanish Elegy" from Weissman on the condition that the painting be authenticated. According to the claim, Weissman brought in representatives from the Dedalus Foundation to conduct a review. The foundation, which maintains Motherwell's catalogue raisonné, sent a letter to Weissman soon after the meeting stating "it is the opinion of the foundation that the work is the work of Robert Motherwell," according to Killala's suit.


But two years later, the foundation raised questions about the painting's authenticity after conducting further research for the Motherwell catalogue raisonné. Dedalus employees noticed anomalies in the style and provenance of a group of seven paintings, including "Spanish Elegy 1953.P.24." (Of the other six, three were sold through, or at one point associated with, Knoedler Gallery, which used to represent Motherwell — Weissman was once a salesperson for Knoedler — while the other three were sold directly through Weissman.) Killala began to consider taking legal action, as Dedalus's doubts about the paintings would cause the work to "lose all commercial value, and become unsalable in the trade," in the words of the suit.

Then, this past May, the foundation brought its own $9 million suit against Weissman for lying about the provenance of the painting (technically this counts as a "crossclaim," a lawsuit between two co-defendants). According to the new claim, Weissman told Dedalus that he bought the painting from a Kuwaiti princess, while he told Killala that it was purchased directly from Motherwell by the owner's parents. In fact, Dedalus's claim alleges, Weissman received the forged Motherwell from Glafira Rosales of Glafira Rosales Fine Arts in Mahopac, N.Y. Rosales's husband, Jose Carlos Begantinos Diaz, has reportedly been accused of trafficking in forgeries since the 1990s. Weissman denies any misstatement.

On July 28, Weissman filed a complaint of his own against Rosales, asserting that he and the dealer had split profits on the Motherwell sale, and that Rosales is therefore liable to share in any and all damages and fees that may follow from the ensuing legal action. The complaint also states that if the painting is a forgery, Rosales "breached the duties of care, fair dealing and disclosure."

Lawyers for the Dedalus Foundation did not respond to e-mail inquiries. A spokesman for Julian Weissman's gallery told ARTINFO in an e-mail that the dealer "has earned the trust of so many precisely because he routinely seeks out experts to authenticate works of art as part of his due diligence prior to any transaction. Simply put, Julian Weissman believed in the authenticity of every work of art he has ever sold or help sell."

Though Knoedler gallery is mentioned in the body of the litigation, a spokesperson told ARTINFO that the Madison Avenue institution is not being sued. "Knoedler is not a party to the litigation between Killala Fine Arts, the Dedalus Foundation, and Julian Weissman, and we are unable to comment on the issues involved; we are hopeful that this matter will ultimately bring clarity to the question of the authenticity of these paintings." Rosales's lawyer, meanwhile, told the New York Post that Weissman's claims were "a lot of crap."