Disgruntled Dealer Doubles Down, Adding $20 Million to His Claim Against Cady Noland and Sotheby's

Disgruntled Dealer Doubles Down, Adding $20 Million to His Claim Against Cady Noland and Sotheby's
Cady Noland, "Cowboys Milking," 1990

If nothing else comes from dealer Marc Jancou's ongoing legal battle with legendarily reclusive artist Cady Noland, it at least has offered a bit of window into how difficult it is to get ahold of her. In fresh court documents filed in the last few days, a representative says he had to visit her New York apartment no less than four times in an attempt to serve her legal papers. The first time, he wrote in an affidavit, the artist "refused to come down or let me in the building to serve the papers." Finally, after three further unsuccessful attempts, he was let in by another tenant, sliding the papers under Noland's door.

The hapless paper-server is but a bit player in a developing case that may have larger implications in determining an important question: What authority does an artist have over his or her artwork after it leaves the studio? The lawsuit, which pits artist Noland and auction house Sotheby's against Jancou, concerns a work of art disavowed by Noland and subsequently pulled from a Sotheby's sale. In February, Jancou, who had consigned the work to Sotheby's, sued both the artist and the auction house for $26 million in damages. Now, he's upping the ante: Jancou is suing Sotheby’s for another $20 million on a new charge ("breach of fiduciary duty"), bringing the total suit to a whopping $46 million — all over a work of art that was estimated to sell for just $250,000 to $350,000.

Though the original circumstances surrounding Sotheby's decision to pull the silkscreen print on aluminum, "Cowboys Milking" (1990), from the sale were murky, the new papers lay out a clearer sequence of events. In an interesting twist, they note that "Cowboys Milking" was previously offered to Christie's, which declined to sell it after hearing complaints from Noland about its condition. (A condition report included in the suit indicates the aluminum was bent on three of the work’s four corners.) This bolsters Sotheby's claims that the work was unfit to sell — though it also raises questions about why the house agreed to sell it in the first place.

Both Sotheby's and Noland believe withdrawing the work from auction was well within the artist's rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) and New York’s Artists’ Authorship Rights Act (AARA). It was damaged, they allege, and therefore notably different from the work she created in her studio. “All artists have a reputational interest, and that's what these statutes are designed to safeguard,” Dan Brooks, Noland’s attorney, told ARTINFO, adding that if the artist believes her work has been “defaced,” she has the right to remove it from the marketplace. “The artist’s right supercedes the collector’s,” he said. (Sotheby’s, meanwhile, has called the suit “meritless.”)

Jancou disagrees. His lawyer suggests that the auction house blindly acceded to Noland's requests without doing its own due diligence. Court papers note that it was Sotheby's itself that first induced the dealer to offer the work, calling it "rare," "fresh," and "A+ amazing!" (By contrast, when the work finally arrived at Sotheby's later that month, the staff noted there were several "condition issues," according to internal e-mails.)

“VARA and AARA doesn’t give her [Noland] an unbridled right to object,” Jancou’s lawyer, Paul Hanly, told ARTINFO. “She has the right to demand that her work not be displayed in the event of a substantial alteration. Our position is that this work was not mutilated or defaced…to give her the right to do what she did.”