The New York Times’s Ralph Blumenthal unravels a convoluted sale of Constantin Brancusi’s Mlle Pogany, a work that has many disputed owners, including the Romanian government, a mysterious debt trader and a Norwegian shipping magnate and financier. Here’s a slightly simplified version of the story, if you can keep all of the players straight: two Romanian brothers say their family inherited the statue. They almost lost it to Romania when it was on loan to a museum. They tried to auction it once but the Romanians came after them. So they negotiated a sale but internal tensions between the brothers caused them to sell to a corporation controlled by David Martinez in a complicated deal that would resolve Romania’s claims.
Here’s the longer version:
a 1913 version of one of his most celebrated works, “Mademoiselle Pogany,” a bronze bust of a young woman spare and streamlined as an egg, has ignited a baroque custody battle being waged in courtrooms in Manhattan, Oslo and Paris. […]
“This is going to take a long time,” said Christen Sveaas, a Norwegian art collector, who is suing to enforce a 2007 contract that he believes makes him the owner of the piece. […]
Claimed by Romania as a national treasure worth as much as $100 million, the statue is believed to be in storage, placed there by the other of its disputed owners, a holding corporation tied to David Martinez, a New York financier and art collector.
Mr. Sveaas and the corporation each maintain that the statue was sold to them in 2007 by the brothers Alexandru and Alvaro Botez, who are originally from Romania. […]
Given the problems with the Sveaas deal, the brothers renewed negotiations with another buyer that had expressed interest in the piece, Studio Capital, a Belize-based corporation identified in court papers as a “shell company and alter ego” for Mr. Martinez, 52, a Mexican-born debt trader.
He is reported to have paid a record price for a contemporary painting — $140 million for a Jackson Pollock in 2006 — and spent nearly $55 million in 2004 and 2005 for penthouse apartment space in the Time Warner Center.
In August 2007, to help close the deal with Studio Capital, Alvaro Botez and the statue traveled to Switzerland, where a New York art dealer who represented Mr. Martinez, Dominique Lévy of L&M Arts, inspected it.
A week later, without telling Mr. Sveaas, the Botezes sold the statue to the corporation, which paid the brothers roughly $7 million each. In addition, if Romanian claims are cleared within six years, Alexandru would be paid half the market price of the statue, less the $7 million he already received. Court papers say Ms. Lévy estimated the sculpture’s value at $38 million. […]
Now, Mr. Sveaas is pushing forward with his case in Manhattan, where he has accused Mr. Martinez and Studio Capital of “tortious interference” in his contract to buy the statue. He is seeking $40 million in actual damages — his valuation of “Mademoiselle Pogany” — plus $40 million in punitive damages.
Mr. Martinez’ lawyer in London, Jonathan I. Blackman of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, denied that Mr. Martinez himself owns the statue. But the Oslo judge found that Mr. Martinez was closely involved in the sale to Studio Capital.
In court papers, Studio Capital said that Mr. Sveaas never had a binding contract with both Botez brothers, so there was nothing to sabotage, and that winning the statue amounted to “the definition of economic competition.”
For the full version, go to the Times’s site below.
A Brancusi Masterpiece Mired in a Custody Fight (New York Times)