Reading the Bloomberg story on the court case surrounding a Caravaggio copy sold to a collector who claimed it was an original but never realized the value of that claim raises real questions about why the courts are hearing the case. To recap, the family of a British Naval doctor who bought a painting for a £140 and sold it 44 years later for £42,000 is upset at Sotheby’s for not proving the work is authentic. The famous collector who bought it and declared it authentic did not sell the work before he died, nor was he able to donate it with other works because of the attribution is not accepted.
Indeed, Sotheby’s defense in the matter is simple. The work was circulated and advertised among experts. If there had been significant agreement that the work was an original, it would have sold for much more.
What’s curious here is that the case faults Sotheby’s for its caution in not making extravagant claims for the work which would seem to be in the best interest of both buyers and sellers. In an era where experts are increasingly unwilling to express negative opinions for fear of lawsuits, we have a court case that accuses an auction house of not doing enough to get a positive opinion.
“Caravaggio is a particularly difficult artist,” Charles Beddington, a London art dealer who was formerly head of Christie’s International Plc’s Old Master paintings department, said in an interview. “The quality of his execution is variable, and so he’s easy to copy.”
British courts have seen an increase in the number of art-related cases as collectors who buy pieces for investment are increasingly willing to sue to recoup losses, and because the authenticity of works of art is becoming easier to prove as more scientific tests are being used, said Samson Spanier, a London lawyer at 13 King’s Bench Walk who’s not involved in the case.
“English courts have been hearing art-related disputes since the 18th century, but several recent high-profile cases suggest a rise in art litigation,” Spanier said.
If the case is decided in the family’s favor, will the auction houses decide that it is safer to offer only the works that are well-documented and leave the ones that could use the opinion of a broad range of experts and amateurs in the dark of the private market?