Art law Museums News USA

These saints are ours, Getty says

Family squabble over inheritance in France leads museum to seek court declaration naming it the legal owner

The Getty bought The Stigmatization of Saint Francis and Angel Crowning Saints Cecilia and Valerian from the Wildenstein gallery in 1986. Photo via the Getty's Open Content Program

The Getty Museum is suing in federal court in California to be named as the legal owner of a 14th-century diptych valued at €2m ($2.7m). The suit aims to clear the museum’s title to the work from a claim that could be brought against it by the original owner’s heir in France, and prevent any legal action against the museum.

The diptych, The Stigmatization of Saint Francis and Angel Crowning Saints Cecilia and Valerian, is by an anonymous Avignon artist. According to the court papers, the Getty bought the diptych in 1986 from the Wildenstein gallery in New York, which had obtained it five years earlier from the Sabran-Pontevès family of French aristocrats, whose ancestors are depicted in the paintings.

The museum says that Géraud Marie de Sabran-Pontevès, the youngest son of the seventh Duke de Sabran-Pontevès, recently made a claim on the diptych, based on a long-running inheritance dispute over the late duke’s estate. Sabran-Pontevès’s allegedly says his brother Charles Elzéar, the current duke, sold the painting to Wildenstein without the other siblings’ consent after his father’s death, according to the court papers. The museum says he is asking to have the diptych returned to the estate or for €2m in compensation, the “purported present day value” of the paintings. The defendant has already sued his brother in France and won a €2m judgement payable to the father’s estate, the Getty’s complaint says.

The museum believes it is the legal owner because it bought the work from Wildenstein in good faith, relying on its own research and the gallery’s assurance that it had the legal title. It also says it acquired good title since the diptych was publicly displayed for decades without anyone asserting a claim.

Moreover, the Getty says, any claim Sabran-Pontevès might have to the work is barred by the statute of limitations. In California, he would have had to sue within either three or six years of discovering the unauthorised sale and finding the work was at the Getty. Sabran-Pontevès first started writing to the Getty about the family squabble over the diptych in 1999, the court papers say.

The Getty’s complaint also aims to block any further legal action brought by Sabran-Pontevès in the US, and could pre-empt a lawsuit in France. According to the court papers, Sabran-Pontevès served the museum with his own complaint in June and intends to file a suit in civil court in France, although the museum believes he has yet to do so. When Sabran-Pontevès’s complaint is filed, the Getty says it intends to challenge the French court’s jurisdiction in hearing the case.

At press time, Sabran-Pontevès had not yet responded to the complaint.

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