Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Unanswered questions in Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom case

Once a judge has ruled in a case of disputed title, it's easy to simply close the book and move on. But jurisprudence often leaves important stones unturned and critical questions unanswered. The case of Norman Rockwell's Russian Schoolroom would seem to have been settled following the judgment by the Nevada District Court on April 8th, but certain aspects of the case remain unresolved.

We hear a lot about the concept of 'due diligence' — the investigative steps that need to be taken by those transacting in the art market in order to limit the likelihood of inadvertently handling stolen goods. Such exhortations to 'do the right thing' are generally aimed at dealers, but auction houses also need to kick the tyres from time to time.

In the case of Russian Schoolroom, Chief Judge Roger L. Hunt found for Judy Goffman Cutler (right) in her title dispute with Nevada-based art dealer Jack Solomon, asserting that Mrs Cutler had "met the standard of care for art dealers in the industry" prior to purchasing the painting at Goldberg's auction in 1988. But did the auction house meet the standard of care?

While Mrs Cutler will now regain ownership of the Rockwell picture, some important questions about the case remain unanswered.
  • Who was the mystery "couple" who consigned the painting for sale at the Goldberg Auction Gallery in 1988 and how did they come into ownership of the stolen painting?
  • Why were those close to the Goldberg auction recently able to recall details of what was said on the pre-sale view day in 1988, and yet unable to recall who consigned the painting for sale?
  • Why was Goldberg prepared to offer a painting on behalf of a "couple" whose title to the painting was in question? (Had their good title been beyond doubt, they would surely have refused to share the auction proceeds with Solomon).
  • Why did Solomon himself agree to share the proceeds of the 1988 auction with the "couple" who consigned the painting when he was himself claiming good title to it? Why not assert outright ownership and all the proceeds?

We're unlikely ever to get a satisfactory answer to these nagging questions, for the record is far from clear as to how much Solomon declared to his lawyers.

Who was the mystery "couple" who consigned Russian Schoolroom to the Goldberg auction? Will Jack Solomon please do us the courtesy of divulging their identity?

More on this in the next few days.

Exonerated: Steven Spielberg's Art Dealer in Case of Rockwell Painting Stolen from St. Louis (Riverfront TImes)

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