Her “Chagall” is going to be thrown away. How’s that for “Let the Buyer Beware”?
In 1994, Stephanie Clegg bought a painting by Marc Chagall at a Sotheby’s auction for $90,000. In 2008, it was revalued at $100,000. Now, a group of experts in France wants to get rid of it because it is a fake.
The answer to the question of whether or not a valuable piece of art is real can be surprisingly changeable over time, depending on new and sometimes conflicting opinions.
In 1973, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art changed the names of about 300 paintings that had been thought to be by masters like Rembrandt, Goya, Vermeer, and Velázquez for a long time.
Everett Fahy, who was in charge of European paintings at the Met at the time, said, “I think attributions are like medicine or any other field where knowledge is always changing or growing.”
About 37 years later, the museum realized it had been right the first time and put Velázquez’s name back on one of the paintings, a portrait of Phillip IV.
But this kind of history doesn’t help Stephanie Clegg, who paid $90,000 for a painting attributed to Marc Chagall at a Sotheby’s auction in 1994, just nine years after the artist died.
When Ms. Clegg wanted to sell pieces from her collection two years ago, Sotheby’s told her it might be a good time to auction off her Chagall, among other pieces. But the company told her that they would have to send the work to France so that a group of Chagall experts could look at it and sign off on it.
Sotheby’s told Ms. Clegg that the review was just a formality, and she agreed. She decided that she didn’t have much to worry about. After all, the auction house had sold the work as a Chagall, and when it revalued the watercolor at $100,000 in 2008, there was no doubt that it was a Chagall.
But to Ms. Clegg’s disappointment, a panel of experts in Paris said that her Chagall was a fake, kept it, and now wants to destroy it.
When she told Sotheby’s about it, they said there wasn’t much they could do because their guarantee of authenticity was only good for a certain amount of time. The company has given her a $18,500 credit toward their fee if she sells any of her artworks in the future. She doesn’t think this is enough, though.
Ms. Clegg, who is 73 years old, said in an interview, “I trusted them all those years.” “They were supposed to be experts I could trust, so I relied on them.”
Ms. Clegg is now in a stalemate. She has asked Sotheby’s for $175,000 through her lawyer. The auction house says that there is no legal basis for that request and that the discount it has offered on future sales would equal the fee it made when it sold the painting in 1994.
In a letter from 2020, an executive at the auction house told Ms. Clegg, “Given that the first sale was over twenty years ago, we are well past the time when Sotheby’s could have guaranteed the work’s authorship and had any recourse against the seller.”
One of the things that makes the art world so interesting and risky is that a change in attribution can make the value of one work go down and the value of another work go up. For example, the “Salvator Mundi” was sold at auction for $1,175 in 2005, when it was thought to be by no one, but it sold for $450 million in 2017 after experts decided it was by Leonardo da Vinci.
Auction houses have limited how long they will guarantee that a work is real in order to protect themselves from bad changes in attribution. Sotheby’s tells people who buy art that it will stand behind it for five years. (Art galleries can set the terms of a sale in a contract, but most of the time they have to follow the Uniform Commercial Code, which gives buyers four years to file a lawsuit if the work’s authorship was misrepresented or not clear.)
Ms. Clegg says that Sotheby’s is more to blame than it is admitting for the situation she is in, since it was the original auction house, then an appraiser, and most recently a consultant on the painting’s possible resale. In a letter sent earlier this year, her lawyer, Carter A. Reich, said that the auction house had “breached the contract, made a false statement, been careless, and broken a fiduciary duty.”
All of these claims have been denied by Sotheby’s lawyers, who say that the auction house did what it was supposed to do and followed its own rules.
Ms. Clegg has kept the page from the 1994 Sotheby’s catalog that showed the work, “Le couple au bouquet de fleurs,” a signed watercolor and gouache on paper. The catalog said that Chagall made it around 1950, and it said that L. Praeger, Galerie Pétridès, a private collection, and Achim Moeller Fine Art Limited in New York had all owned it before.
Achim Moeller said in an email that he didn’t remember doing that work, but through his lawyer he said he would look into his gallery’s records.
Sotheby’s said in a statement that it is rare, but new and revised scholarship can sometimes lead to works being deemed fake, which is something the auction house cannot promise won’t happen.
“Sotheby’s respects and protects the privacy of its consignors and buyers and does not comment on matters that are not public record,” the statement said. “This particular work was known to the market and traded multiple times before the 1994 auction.”
The Chagall hung on the wall of the bedroom that Ms. Clegg and her husband, Alfred John Clegg, shared for many years. When she moved to a smaller home, she had to put the painting in storage. She said that’s where it was when Sotheby’s told her in early 2020 that her Chagall, among other things, might sell well if she wanted to sell things. The painting was then sent to the Comité Marc Chagall, a group of experts that has been around since 1988 and decides if a work is really by the artist or not.
Late in 2020, the panel’s report about her work was made public. In a letter to Ms. Clegg, Meret Meyer, one of Chagall’s granddaughters and a member of the panel, said that the group had unanimously found the work to be fake. She also said that it was a combination of several other works, including “Le couple au bouquet” from about 1952 and “Les amoureux au cheval” from 1961.
The committee wrote that Ms. Clegg’s painting had “recurrent iconographic elements of Chagall’s work,” such as a bouquet, lovers, a horse profile, a rooster profile, a village silhouette, and a crescent moon. However, a translation provided by Ms. Clegg’s lawyer said that these elements lacked “real presence.” The letter also said that Chagall’s family wanted the painting to be “seized by the court” so that it could be destroyed.
In France, the courts have agreed that expert panels have the right to destroy works that are found to be fake.
The Chagall panel tried to get rid of “Nude 1909-10,” a painting that a British businessman named Martin Lang bought for 100,000 British pounds in 1992 thinking it was by Chagall. Mr. Lang didn’t like it, but early in 2014, he tweeted, “I’ve decided not to fight this expensive court battle! These committees don’t care about people!”
Thomas C. Danziger, an art market lawyer in Manhattan who is not involved in Ms. Clegg’s case and has not looked at her painting, said that a panel like the Chagall committee has complete authority in the market.
“You could have a picture of Chagall painting this and have him write that he did,” he said. “But if the Comité says it’s not by the artist, then it’s not by the artist for the purposes of the art market.”
Since history shows that attributions can change, some experts think it would be too final to destroy a piece of art.
“If the idea is that experts’ opinions can change, then destroying a painting takes away that possibility,” said Jo Backer Laird, a lawyer who worked for Christie’s auction house for 10 years as general counsel.
Several authentication committees have been sued after deciding that a work was not real. Panels that officially reviewed the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Jackson Pollock have also been disbanded. Mr. Reich, who is Ms. Clegg’s lawyer, would not say anything about the possibility of suing the Chagall committee.
Instead, Ms. Clegg has gone to Sotheby’s. In a letter to the auction house, Mr. Reich said that it had “falsely and carelessly” told her that the committee didn’t take works very often and that she didn’t need to worry. He also wrote that Sotheby’s told Ms. Clegg that they would do “additional research” before sending the painting to the committee, but that no research was done.
Sotheby’s doesn’t just use the fact that the auction house’s warranty of authenticity had run out to argue that it is not responsible for what happened to Ms. Clegg. Sotheby’s lawyers have also said that the company wrote to Ms. Clegg about the risks of submitting to the committee. They also said that any statements made to Ms. Clegg about how likely it was that the Chagall panel would seize the painting were just expectations, and that she had signed a form releasing Sotheby’s from any claims related to the submission.
Sotheby’s lawyers also said that the committee didn’t start giving out regular certificates of authenticity until the mid- to late-1990s. This means that the auction house couldn’t have known for sure before the 1994 sale.
Mr. Reich said he doesn’t believe that claim because the committee’s letter to Ms. Clegg said, “It is pointed out that in 1994, the MARC CHAGALL COMMITTEE was not asked to look at the work before or after the sale.”
Ms. Meyer of the committee did not answer a question about whether the panel regularly authenticated works in 1994.
Mr. Reich said that even if the committee wasn’t regularly authenticating works at the time, it was by 2008, when Ms. Clegg, who goes by the name Stevie, asked Sotheby’s for an update on the Chagall.
He asked, “How could Sotheby’s value the work at $100,000 (or any other amount) without telling Stevie that he should have it authenticated?”
Sotheby’s said that the documents related to that appraisal made it clear that its estimates were only estimates until more research and authentication were done.
For Ms. Clegg, the problem can be explained in a simple way.
She said, “I bought this painting from Sotheby’s because it was a real painting at a real price.” “I think that’s something they should stand by.”