Greek Drama: Court Rules Sotheby's Sold Forged Painting to Shipping Tycoon

Greek Drama: Court Rules Sotheby's Sold Forged Painting to Shipping Tycoon
Sotheby's in London
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

It's not a good time to be in the art business in Greece. On the heels of a spate of antiquities thefts that have crippled the country's already ailing museums, the market for Greek art has taken a blow. Earlier this week, Sotheby's and one of its specialists were found guilty of selling a fake painting by Greek artist Constantin Parthenis, according to the Greek newspaper AXIA.

The case adds to growing anxiety about the number of Greek forgeries currently on the market. The market for Greek art began to take off in 2001, when Sotheby’s held its first Greek sale, but has faltered since rumors of forgeries began to circulate in 2008. The Sotheby's case is notable, experts say, because collectors are usually hesitant to bring their concerns about forgeries to court. (“We are not like the UK and the US, people don’t talk about the issue here — there’s a general lack of trust in justice and new buyers don’t want to highlight their naiveté and mistakes,” a Greek art collector told the Art Newspaper in March.)

That fear didn't deter Diamantis Diamantides, a shipping tycoon who is also voracious buyer of Greek art. In his lawsuit against Sotheby's, filed in January, he alleged that the auction house fraudulently convinced him to buy two alleged forgeries, one of which set a record for Parthenis in 2007, selling for £670,100 ($843,600). The court ruled that the record-setting painting — a pastel-colored, Modigliani-esque work titled "Virgin and Child" — was indeed a forgery, and ordered that Sotheby's and its specialist pay Diamantides £950,000 ($1.16 million). (The judge said he had no grounds to rule on the second painting because England has jurisdiction.)

The verdict couldn't have come at a worse time for Sotheby's, which was in the middle of its European Paintings sale in London. (That sale began to feature Greek art in 2011, after Sotheby’s dropped its stand-alone Greek sale amid falling prices.) The auction, which ended on June 12, featured artists such as Constantinos Volanakis and Nikos Hadjikiriakos-Ghika, but sold only one Greek painting above the low estimate and failed to sell the lion's share of work by Greek artists entirely.

In an e-mailed statement, Sotheby's spokesperson Diana Phillips told ARTINFO that the company plans to appeal the decision. "Sotheby’s is surprised and disappointed by the Court’s judgment and will be filing an appeal," she said. "It stands to reason that an auction house which sells art worth billions of dollars per year and relies on its reputation to secure consignments and purchasers would not put its business at risk by knowingly selling forged works."

Time will tell if Diamantides's victory will inspire other disgruntled collectors to come out of the woodwork with their own suspicious purchases.