Auctions Art law Market USA

California court dismisses collector's case against Sotheby's

Judge rules that Nazi-owned art lawsuit should be heard in England

Van Loo's Allegorical Portrait of a Lady as Diana Wounded by Cupid

A federal court in California this week dismissed a lawsuit brought by a collector, Steven Brooks, who alleged that a painting he bought from Sotheby’s in London in 2004 is unsellable because it was once owned by the Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering.

Acting on a motion by Sotheby’s to throw the case out, the judge said that a US court was not the proper venue, and ruled instead that the case—concerning Allegorical Portrait of a Lady as Diana Wounded by Cupid by the 18th-century French artist Louis-Michel van Loo—had to be heard in England.

Brooks alleges that Sotheby’s should have researched the provenance of the van Loo painting, and says that the auction house should have informed potential buyers at the London sale that the work had been owned by Goering. The court did not rule on these allegations.

It was Christie’s, not Sotheby’s, which uncovered the Goering connection when Brooks sought to sell the work there in 2010. Christie’s specialists found that Goering bought the painting in 1939 from an art dealer, and refused to take the consignment. Sotheby’s, meanwhile, refused to refund the $96,000 Brooks paid for the work in 2004.

The court agreed with Sotheby’s that the terms of business in the auction catalogue describing the painting created a contract between Sotheby’s and Brooks, requiring the lawsuit be brought in England. The conditions of business state that “the Courts of England are to have exclusive jurisdiction” to hear all sale disputes. Neither Christie’s nor Sotheby’s could identify a claimant who might allege the painting was looted, which is highly unusual in Holocaust-related lawsuits of this kind.

The court said it was reasonable for Sotheby’s to limit where it would have to defend itself: “With operations in 40 countries and 250 annual auctions in ten global salesrooms, Sotheby’s conducts a business that, by its nature, exposes it to potential litigation in different [forums] from plaintiffs from many locales."

It also noted that the van Loo was Brooks’ 32nd purchase from a Sotheby’s auction in London. “His participation in similar transactions suggests he was familiar with the type of catalogue in dispute,” the court said, and Brooks “had a large incentive to study the contract provisions, since this single transaction involved the purchase of a $96,000 painting”.

When asked whether Brooks would appeal or pursue the case in England, his lawyer, Thomas LoSavio of Low Ball & Lynch in San Francisco, said: “We are... considering our options.”

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