MANHATTAN (CN) - The 165-year old Knoedler Gallery, which closed in December amid allegations it had sold a phony Jackson Pollock, faces a new claim, in Federal Court, of selling a bogus Mark Rothko, for $8.3 million.
"This case is about greed and fraud in the highest echelons of the oldest and once most prestigious art gallery in New York City," the 32-page complaint begins.
Plaintiffs Domenico and Eleanore De Sole, of South Carolina, claim that in December 2004 Knoedler and its former president Ann Freedman sold them a counterfeit of Rothko's Untitled, 1956, for $8.3 million.
The painting, believed to be emblematic of the artist's brooding abstract expressionism, was actually "unsalable and worthless," the couple says.
"Banking on their unblemished and impeccable reputations, Knoedler and Freedman fraudulently warranted that the work was an authentic Rothko, when they knew or should have known otherwise, led about their knowledge of the work's provenance, and hid the true facts," the complaint states.
The De Sotos say Ann Freeman concocted a "compelling story" to interest them in the fake Rothko.
"[I]n the late 1950s, David Herbert, a since deceased art dealer who knew Rothko personally, arranged for a Swiss collector to purchase the work directly from the artist; when the Swiss collector died, his son inherited the work and then retained Knoedler to sell it," the complaint states. "Freedman vouched for the father and son - who Freeman said insisted upon anonymity but were Knoedler's clients and personally known to her and Knoedler. Freeman also said that a list of experts had authenticated the work, including Rothko scholar Dr. David Anfam and Rothko's son, Christopher Rothko.
"This sales pitch, while convincing, was a scam. Knoedler and Freedman hid the true facts from the De Soles, including that: (a) Knoedler and Freedman had no idea - and in fact still have no idea - where the work came from, other than that they had obtained it from Glafira Rosales, a little known art dealer from Long Island, whom defendants did not know and made no effort to investigate; (b) Knoedler and Freedman relied exclusively upon Rosales' word about the work's provenance; (c) Knoedler and Freedman had no connection to the purported Swiss collector or his son, and did not even know their names, as remains true today; (d) Rosales told Knoedler and Freedman, incredibly, that the work was one of the treasure trove of approximately 20 previously 'undiscovered' works that the Swiss collector and Herbert had amassed and that reportedly were painted by, and obtained directly from, the most celebrated artists of their generation: Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Rothko and Clyfford Still (the 'Rosales Collection'); (e) at least one work from the Rosales collection that Knoedler sold in 2003 had been retained after the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) refused to certify its authenticity; (f) not one work in the Rosales collection had a single piece of paper establishing its provenance before arriving at Knoedler; and (g) neither Dr. Anfam, Christopher Rothko nor any of the other numerous experts named by Freedman in her pitch to the De Soles had authenticated the work - rather, Knoedler and Freedman exaggerated certain experts' informal impressions to make fraudulent assertions bolstering the impression the work was authentic."
Rosales is not a party to the complaint.
The complaint claims that Knoedler and Freedman "participat(ed) in a scheme to enrich themselves and Knoedler's ultimate owner, Michael Hammer, by defrauding numerous unsuspecting collectors out of as much as $37 million."
Hammer is not a party to the complaint.
The De Soles seek at least $25 million in treble and punitive damages for fraud and racketeering.
They are represented by Gregory A. Clarick, with Clarick Gueron & Reisbaum.
Freedman's attorney with Boies, Schiller & Flexner called the case "nothing more than a copycat lawsuit."
It is notable only for the short shrift it gives to the compelling fact that the Rothko painting, before it was sold, was affirmed by leading Rothko scholars," attorney Nicholas Gravante Jr. with said in statement. "Furthermore, this Rothko was shown prominently to the international art public, and so documented in one of the series of focused exhibitions 'Mark Rothko Rooms' at the Beyeler Foundation, in Basel, Switzerland. We continue to believe in the authenticity of this painting, and look forward to proving that this tag-along complaint is meritless."