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Are Descriptions in Auction Sale Catalogs Legally Binding?

by Björn Schöpe
translated by honeycutshome

December 18, 2014 – Strictly speaking, it is quite simple: auction houses and their experts are fallible, just like any human being. But can they be held liable for that? Once again, a court has to judge whether an auction house – Sotheby’s, in this case – has made a criminally wrong estimate of an object’s value.

In 1962, a Royal Navy surgeon bought a painting for £140 that allegedly was painted by a pupil of Caravaggio. His descendant, Lancelot Thwaytes, had the object in question examined by Sotheby’s. The X-rays done and the assessment of the experts confirmed: it was no genuine Caravaggio. In 2006, Sotheby’s sold the painting for £42.000. Up to that moment, Mr Thwaytes was perfectly happy.
Then, however, the identity of the buyer was revealed: it was collector and art expert Sir Denis Mahon. Sir Dennis had the painting cleaned and examined more thoroughly. Other experts agreed with his assessment that it had been painted by Caravaggio indeed. This was nothing short of a sensation. After all, at the time of his death, the oeuvre of the Italian artist is said to have comprised only 50 paintings, of which only very few are offered for sale in auctions today, though. This is why this work is now considered to be worth £10 million! The painting would have fetched as much in 2006 had it been offered for sale as a genuine Caravaggio.

Lancelot Thwaytes is now suing the auction house Sotheby’s for ‘professional negligence’. The experts should have recognized its authenticity. But: is the painting a work by Caravaggio in the first place? Sotheby’s and its art experts stick to their assessment: this version of the work ‘The Cardsharps’ is inferior in quality to the original – by the hand of the Old Master – which hangs in a museum in the United States of America. Both paintings depict two villains cheating a young rich man at the card table.

A similar case came to an end in Germany early this year. In 2009, an elderly woman submitted an old carpet to an auction house. The auctioneer deemed it worth €900, later it was sold for €19,700. Soon afterwards, however, Christie’s estimated the carpet at €350,000. Thus, the former owner sued the German auction house for the same sum. At Christie’s, the Persian carpet fetched €7.2 million, a record price that made it the then most expensive carpet in the world. By now, the courts have judged in favor of the auction house: the auction house is not specialized in carpets and has done proper research, within the limits of its resources. That is all one could ask for.

The state of facts the new price is based on couldn’t be denied in the case of the carpet. When it comes to the Caravaggio, however, the question arises: how to deal with objects whose authenticity and provenance are not yet fully determined? The court surely will have to proceed with great care for it might set a precedent.

For the Caravaggio case, see an article The Telegraph

… and Daily Mail.

The verdict in the Persian carpet case is commented on in an article on the website of the Welt.

An earlier short note on this case in English you can read here.

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