Lawsuit over Gauguin work

Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) on display in the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland, in 2015.
Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) on display in the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland, in 2015. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • A legal dispute has revealed that a painting thought to be the world's most expensive artwork when it was sold in 2014, was not, in fact, sold at a record-breaking price.

Paul Gauguin's 1892 oil painting Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) - a study of two Tahitian girls - fetched US$210 million (S$290 million), US$90 million less than originally reported.

The New York Times and other news outlets reported in 2015 that the painting had been sold by Mr Rudolf Staechelin, a retired Sotheby's executive, to a Qatari buyer for close to US$300 million. If true, that would have been the highest known price for a painting.

Prices in private sales of artworks are often closely guarded secrets, particularly when they reach astronomical levels.

Last week, however, a trial began in the High Court in London that revealed the ins and outs of this particular high-stakes art deal, which took nearly two years of negotiations to complete.

In September 2014, Mr Staechelin sold the painting to a limited liability company that was run by British art dealer Guy Bennett on behalf of the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

This was according to documents submitted to the court by lawyers for Swiss auctioneer Simon de Pury, who was involved in the dealings.

Mr de Pury's lawyer wrote that his client originally put the buyer and seller in touch. He, along with his wife Michaela and their limited partnership, have sued Mr Staechelin and his trust, claiming that Mr de Pury is owed a US$10-million commission on the sale.

The two sides had no written contract regarding the commission.

Mr de Pury's lawyer, Mr Jonathan Cohen, wrote in an argument submitted last week that "it would be unusual to find some types of contract made orally, but that is not true of the art market, which continues to operate in a 'gentlemanly manner, based on mutual trust'."

Mr Staechelin contests the claim that he owes commission. He contends that Mr de Pury deceived him about possible higher offers for the painting, voiding any possible agreement, gentlemanly or otherwise.

Mr Jeremy Scott, lawyer for Mr Staechelin and his trustees, said in a telephone interview: "The trustees say that had it not been for the deception, they wouldn't have accepted the US$210 million price.

"They say that the de Purys forfeited any right to commission as a result of the deception."

The trial is ongoing, but Mr Scott said a decision on the case by the end of this month was possible.

At the very least, however, the suit has rearranged the top rankings for high art prices. Willem de Kooning's 1955 painting Interchanged stands alone with a reported sale price of US$300 million last year. Paul Cezanne's The Card Players brought US$250 million in a sale to the Qatari government in 2011.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'Lawsuit over Gauguin work'. Print Edition | Subscribe