The 5 Most Controversial Legal Battles Over Art

Most Influential

Lawsuits do more than settle the score between opposing parties; they often help to incite social awareness of a prominent issue. In the case of art lawsuits, intellectual property is usually called into question. The subject at hand is often the pricey claim for restitution or repossession of an artwork that was misappropriated or even blatantly stolen.

The value of art is notoriously changeable. In many cases, the artists that are so revered today didn’t receive a penny for their work during their lifetime. World-renowned painter Van Gogh, for instance, lived out his life in poverty, losing faith in his talent; in his lifetime he only successfully sold one painting. His over 900 other paintings didn’t reach popularity or high demand until after his tragic death. Today, his work is exhibited in the world’s most popular museums, with his paintings sold for millions. Art, like fine wine, seems to enrich with age. Like everything else in our creatively charged and economically driven world, every piece of art belongs to somebody whether by dint of creating it or buying it. When it comes to the question of who owns artwork, the boundaries aren’t so well defined, since the law must be applied to justify intellectual or historical propriety or even the work’s authenticity. It’s easy to see how these factors may lead to contentious legal issues that stir up serious controversy.

The lawsuits featured here are not listed based on the monetary sum each was worth, but on the impact and influence they had on the art world. The following are lawsuits that serve to explore common conflicts in art proprietorship and attempt to address the question of who has the right to claim ownership of art.

5. Thwaytes v. Sotheby’s – Mislabeled Painting Case, 2013

Sotheby’s of London, one of the largest brokers of fine art, jewelry, collectables and real estate in the world, headquartered in New York City, was sued in 2013. Lancelot William Thwaytes took the company to court for having mislabeled an original oil painting by Caravaggio, a renowned Italian master, as a 17th century copy.

In 1962, a British naval officer first purchased the painting, “The Cardsharps”, at auction from Sotheby’s for 140 pounds. Thwaytes later inherited the painting and sold it again at auction in 2006, this time for 42,000 pounds to the late British art collector and art expert Denis Mahon. Mahon determined the work to be an original Caravaggio worth over 10 million pounds in today’s market. Thwaytes responded to this shocking discovery by filing a lawsuit against Sotheby’s to recuperate the interest and costs of the difference between what the painting was sold for in 2006 and its true market value that year. But Sotheby’s sticks to its guns, claiming that art historians and Caravaggio experts assure that the painting is in fact a copy of the original that hangs in Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas today. The opposition to Sotheby’s is strong, as experts on Mahon’s side include Caravaggio scholars and even the director of the Vatican Museums. This case is one that reflects the ongoing conflict in the appraisal of artworks and how auction houses label their inventory. It prompts the question of what measures auction houses should take in determining the authenticity of their items up for sale. Despite Mahon having passed away in 2011 (and bequeathing his collection of 58 Italian-baroque paintings to UK galleries), the case is still ongoing.

4. Maestracci v. Nahmad- Art Restitution Case, 2011


In 2011, billionaire art dealer Helly Nahmad was sued for allegedly withholding a painting that did not belong to him. The Amedeo Modigliani original, “Seated Man with Cane”, is valued at 25 million dollars and was one of thousands of pieces of artwork seized during the Nazi regime.

The painting’s original owner was Jewish gallery owner Oscar Stettiner, who had to flee from Paris during the Nazi invasion. His Modigliani was confiscated and sold at auction in 1944 by the Nazis. Throughout the years, as Stettiner’s family members died, grandson Philippe Maestracci inherited the painting. Maestracci discovered that Helly Nahmad (son of art dealer and billionaire David Nahmad) was in possession of the Modigliani in 2008 and made several written attempts to retrieve the painting from him but received no reply. Nahmad’s lawyers claim that the painting is owned by an unaffiliated organization, the International Art Center. Maestracci’s lawyers, however, insist that the center is an instrumentality owned and operated by the Nahmad family.

The art center’s holdings are worth an estimated 3 to 4 billion dollars. Nahmad’s lawyers contest all accusations and claim that Helly Nahdmad has never possessed the painting. The case is open and ongoing.

3. Herzog v. Hungary- Art Restitution Case, 2010


In the 20th century, Jewish art aficionado Baron Mor Lipót Herzog collected over 2,000 art works, amounting to one of the largest and most exquisite private art collections in Europe prior to World War II. Lamentably, the Hungarian Holocaust of the Second World War claimed the lives of nearly 75 percent of the Jewish population in Hungary. Hungarian authorities, in allegiance with the Nazi regime, also forced Jewish citizens to relinquish their private property.

Artworks in their possession were confiscated to be destroyed, and the choicest picks were transported to Germany for ‘safe-keeping’. Much of the Herzog collection was shipped to Germany but some of the pieces were turned over to Hungarian art museums where they have remained ever since. In 2011, the heirs to the Herzog collection filed suit against the Republic of Hungary for withholding over 40 artworks valued at 100 million dollars collectively. In 2013, Hungary acknowledged efforts to restore artworks looted during the Holocaust to their rightful owners but did not make specific mention of the Herzog collection. With Hungary denying all accusations of possessing the looted artworks, the case remains unresolved and is regarded by art experts around the world as one of the largest unresolved Holocaust art restitution claims in history.

2. Cariou v. Prince –Intellectual Property Rights Case, 2013


Richard Prince is an artist who’s built his career from appropriating images and remixing them in often humorous collages and paintings. He has reached great success with his work being sold for millions. However in 2011, a Manhattan courtroom ruled Prince guilty of using images taken from books by French photographer Patrick Cariou without permission, creating one of the most renowned copyright cases ever to hit the art world.

The principal issue that shook the walls of the numerous modern art institutions and exhibitors in America was determining what condones ‘fair use’ in appropriating pre-existing artworks. The ‘fair use’ principle essentially defends an artist’s right to ‘borrow’ artworks and transform them into an expression that enriches the meaning of the original piece to contribute something of value for society to take away from. Prince being found guilty of violating copyright laws in his work essentially narrows the gap between artistic appropriation and transformation.

Some believe that there should be restrictions placed on artists that seek to – perhaps lazily – appropriate an image and deem it an original expression simply because it may be tweaked. However, many others believe appropriation is a natural impulse to hybridize cultures in our globalized, integrated world. The lawsuit incited debate on how copied material makes ‘fair use’ of the original, and prompted the question: What is the criteria for ‘fair use’ of an artwork under copyright law?

The high prices and vast quantity of Prince’s “Canal Zone” collection of appropriated Cariou photographs rendered it one of the costliest lawsuits in an art copyright law case to date. Judge Deborah A. Batts who found Prince guilty in 2011 ordered that the unsold artworks in his collection be destroyed.

Naturally, Prince appealed the decision and won the suit in April 2013.

1.Bondi v. Leopold Museum- Art Restitution Case, 2010


Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele’s iconic portrait of his mistress Portrait of Wally (1912) is cleverly known to the art world as the “face that launched a thousand lawsuits”.

The painting, owned by Rudolf Leopold – founder of the Leopold museum in Vienna, Austria – inspired great controversy after it was exhibited along with a number of Schiele’s works in a 1997 special exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The New York Times published an article describing the painting’s controversial acquisition. It was, indeed, a looted artwork stolen by Nazis in Austria from Jewish art dealer, Lea Bondi, in 1939.

The article prompted Bondi’s heirs to urge MoMA to withhold the painting from the Leopold Museum, claiming rightfully ownership. A criminal investigation was launched and a 13-year-old court battle ensued to return the iconic painting to its rightful owners. During this time, the value of Schiele’s work skyrocketed in the art market, contributing to the tension. More importantly, however, the Portrait of Wally case exposed the cruel history of Nazi looted art to the world and gave hope of regaining plundered possessions to individuals who had lost ownership of their property during the Holocaust.

The suit and its subsequent media exposure also forced art institutions in the U.S. and in Europe to reevaluate their collections and assess the history of their paintings. Several artworks were later returned to their rightful owners because of this. Above all, the case showed that seemingly impenetrable institutions could be held responsible for wrongful possession of stolen artworks taken from families during the Holocaust. The case settled in 2010 for 19 million dollars, in favor of the Bondi heirs. As part of the settlement, the Bondi heirs agreed to allow the painting to remain in Vienna and to be hung alongside Schiele’s accompanying self-portrait. The 13-year-long case was also the subject of a documentary directed by Andrew Shea in 2012 that follows the long journey to rejoin the paintings of the two long-ago lovers.