The Springfield Museum sues Knoedler

The Art Newspaper 12 October 2003
Martha Lufkin

SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSSETS. The Springfield Library and Museum Association is suing the art dealer Knoedler for loss of a $3 million painting returned by the museum to Italy as war loot.

In June 2001, the Springfield Museum returned the oil painting “Spring sowing” by Jacopo da Ponte, known as Il Bassano, to Italy, after having been shown evidence that the work had disappeared during World War II from the Italian Embassy in Warsaw while on loan from the Uffizi Gallery. Knoedler had sold the painting to the museum in 1955 for $5,000.

Ronald D. Spencer, the attorney for Knoedler at the law firm Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, New York, told The Art Newspaper: “There is no merit to the Springfield Museum claim and we are confident that the court will agree with us.”

The complaint, filed in Massachusetts State superior court, refers to the bill of sale between the dealer and museum dated 25 April 1955, under which Knoedler made a “covenant” with the museum that it was “the lawful owner” of the painting and that the work was “free from all encumbrances.” The covenant added that Knoedler had “good right to sell” the painting, and that Knoedler “will warrant and defend the same against the lawful claims and demands of all persons.”

The complaint says that Knoedler did not ensure that it was the painting’s lawful owner, nor did it defend the museum against the Italian government’s claim.

The bill of sale added that “The picture comes from Mrs Paech, a Swiss lady in whose family the picture had remained for a very long time.” The painting was reportedly sold to Knoedler by the Swiss dealer Lucerne Fine Art Co.

The museum says that before the sale, Knoedler told the museum that it had examined the painting’s provenance, and that it had clear title to sell it, but those representations were false because Knoedler was not the lawful owner.

In October 2000 the Italian government sent documentation of the painting’s theft to the museum. In December 2001, following the painting’s return to Italy, the museum demanded that Knoedler compensate it, but the art dealer refused, the complaint says.

After the return of the Bassano to Italy, the Uffizi lent the Springfield Museums another painting by the same artist, “Two hunting dogs”.

The museum is seeking monetary damages for the loss. The painting is dated 1567 and was recently appraised at $3 million.

In addition to alleging breach of contract and breach of implied warranty, the museum is also alleging fraud and deceit, negligent misrepresentation and innocent misrepresentation, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and violation of a Massachusetts law protecting consumers against unfair or deceptive practices, which carries triple damages.

The claim is a second lawsuit against Knoedler seeking compensation for a work of art sold since World War II which was later returned to the original owner as war loot. Several years ago, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) sued Knoedler for the current value of a painting by Matisse, “Odalisque,” which SAM had returned to the family of the French Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg, from whom it was stolen by the Nazis. The painting was given to SAM by Seattle patrons who bought it from Knoedler in 1954. That lawsuit was settled (The Art Newspaper, no.108, November 2000, p.3).
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