SOTHEBY'S is facing a $ 1.8 billion lawsuit from Holocaust survivors who claim it has recklessly trafficked in works of art stolen from Jews during the Second World War.
They allege Sotheby's helped buy and sell looted masterpieces by Rembrandt, Titian, El Greco, Monet, Van Gogh and others since the 1970s.
Last night Sotheby's called the claim 'patently false' and promised to fight the action.
It is to be filed in New York tomorrow by Holocaust survivors and their families, who claim the works were stolen under the Nazi regime. They are represented by Edward Fagan, the New York lawyer who helped extract $ 1.25bn 'Nazi Gold' compensation from Swiss banks in 1998.
'Artwork and collections worth billions simply disappeared and no one believed they had been destroyed,' said Fagan. 'Those who had them simply waited to find a way to sell them without being discovered - and Sotheby's deliberately assisted them.'
The suit accuses Sotheby's of helping draw up misleading ownership documents for stolen artworks as well as selling them. Fagan claims the $ 1.8bn represents the market value of works that allegedly passed through Sotheby's.
Sotheby's refused to comment in detail until it had seen the legal claim, but said: 'We have a proven track record of working to resolve issues related to art looted during World War II. We were the first auction house to have employees dedicated to this area.
'We gave funding to the Art Loss Register in 1998 to enable all Holocaust claims to be registered on its database free of charge. We have ongoing contact with all the principal organisations as well as many families who lost works during this tragic time. Any suggestion that Sotheby's has been involved in a broad scheme to traffic in looted art is patently false.'http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1233365,00.html