Art gallery owner avoids jail over procedural issue

Jasmine Tay had been sentenced to eight weeks' jail for contempt of court, after she withdrew $3,000 from her bank account despite an injunction to freeze her assets. She was embroiled in a dispute with an Indonesian tycoon over a Botero sculpture.
Jasmine Tay had been sentenced to eight weeks' jail for contempt of court, after she withdrew $3,000 from her bank account despite an injunction to freeze her assets. She was embroiled in a dispute with an Indonesian tycoon over a Botero sculpture.

Contempt of court sentence reduced to fine after lawyer argues she was not given a chance to explain key breach

Art gallery owner Jasmine Tay Kar Oon yesterday avoided an eight-week jail term for flouting four court orders against the backdrop of a US$1.6 million (S$2.3 million) art deal dispute, after winning her appeal on a procedural issue.

The Court of Appeal reduced her sentence for contempt of court to a $10,000 fine, accepting her lawyer's arguments that the lower court had not given her a chance to explain a crucial breach.

The breach in question - withdrawing $3,000 from her bank account even though the court has issued a Mareva injunction to prevent her from moving her assets - was a major factor in why she was sentenced to jail.

Tay set up the Museum of Art and Design, or MAD, in Tanglin Road in 2009.

In March 2014, Indonesian tycoon Tahir, who goes by one name, paid her US$1.6 million for a sculpture by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, known as Couple Dancing. Three months later, he paid her another US$38,100 for shipping fees.

The deal was called off in July that year. He contended she had failed to show that the sculpture was being delivered to him. She said Mr Tahir backed out of the deal after alleging it was a fake.

Mr Tahir lodged a police report against her and filed a civil suit to get his money back.

Judgment was entered against her after she failed to respond to the suit.

To enforce the judgment, Mr Tahir applied for Tay to be questioned in court to determine the assets she had available for paying him back.

She ignored the court date and failed to complete a questionnaire about her finances.

Mr Tahir then obtained the Mareva injunction to freeze her assets. Under the order, she had to disclose her assets in Singapore within seven days.

She did not do this and was, again, a no-show at a rescheduled court hearing.

Mr Tahir then took out contempt of court proceedings against her for repeatedly breaching court orders.

During the third hearing last February, Tay finally produced her bank statements, which disclosed that she had withdrawn $3,000 on Oct 28, 2015, a day after the injunction was issued.

In sentencing Tay to jail in April, Judicial Commissioner Edmund Leow noted that her concealment of the withdrawals was "the most aggravating fact of all".

Yesterday, Tay's lawyer, Mr Salem Ibrahim, argued that his client had not been given the opportunity to take the stand to explain her state of mind and motives for the withdrawals.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, delivering the apex court's decision, said the lower court can take into account the breach of the Mareva injunction in sentencing her.

"However... it was necessary to ensure that proper notice was given to the appellant and that she was given an opportunity to put her case across," he said.

This "does not appear to have taken place", he said, adding that the breach of the Mareva injunction was a "decisive factor" in the lower court's decision that a jail term was warranted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2017, with the headline 'Art gallery owner avoids jail over procedural issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe