A NSW Supreme Court judge has found that art auction house Christie’s engaged in deceit and unconscionable conduct over the sale of a $75,000 fake Albert Tucker painting to a Sydney barrister 14 years ago.
Louise McBride was awarded $118,718 in damages from Christie’s and her art adviser and the dealer who consigned the painting, Fairfax Media reports.
Justice Patricia Bergin ruled that Christie’s is liable for 85% of the damages, consigner Alex Holland of Holland Fine Arts, 10%, and McBride’s former art adviser, Vivienne Sharpe, 5%.
The legal action has brought to light one of the murkier aspects of the art world, where dispute over fake paintings are often settled outside of court.
Sydney Swans chairman Andrew Pridham launched NSW Supreme Court action over a $2.5 million Brett Whiteley painting he bought, but the matter was settled last year without the provenance of the painting being established. The authenticity of the paintings is now subject to legal action in Victoria.
In the McBride case, Justice Bergin found there was misleading and deceptive conduct by the three respondents and that breaches of the Fair Trading Acts occurred.
Christie’s attempted to argue that she was barred by the statute of limitations from bringing the claim and she was not the painting’s owner because the art collector uses a family company, but the judge ruled that the five year time limit only applied from when the fake was discovered. McBride only discovered the problem when she went to sell the painting, Faun and Parrot, and another auction house declared it a fake.
Sydney art consultant Vivienne Sharpe has been accused of being ‘selective’ in her memory of conversations with Christie’s over the provenance of the Albert Tucker painting and deceiving her client, McBride.
In preparing for the case, details emerged of Christie’s staff member contacting Tucker experts over concerns about the number of Tucker paintings from dealer Alex Holland. A Melbourne University panel concluded that McBride’s painting and two others were fakes, but Christie’s auction a second “Tucker” later than year. In 2012, it reimbursed the buyer, the Australian Club in Sydney, $69,000.
Christie’s closed down in Australia in 2006.
Justice Bergin also found against McBride’s art adviser in a separate claim over the sale of a Jeffrey Smart painting to the Menzies Art Brands auction house when the collector was forced to liquidate her collection in 2010. The painting had a guaranteed auction price of $360,000.
After advising McBride to accept the negotiated guarantee, Vivienne Sharpe did not reveal that she would receive a 30% cut of the price paid above the guaranteed figure.
While it’s common practice between auction houses and art dealers, Justice Bergin said it was a secret commission that should have been disclosed. McBride will now receive the commission, which has been kept in a trust fund by Menzies.