Gagosian Gallery, get ready to do some serious emergency PR work, because today’s New York Times headline does not look pretty. According to the New York Times’s Randy Kennedy, Jan Cowles, 93, is claiming gallery owner Larry Gagosian sold a 1964 Roy Lichtenstein painting entitled Girl in the Mirror without her consent. The papers, filed Monday, accuse Gagosian of fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and unjust enrichment, and include a series of emails so depraved, their spectacle is certain to fuel much of the forthcoming press.
The story begins in 2008, with Mrs. Cowles’s son Charles, a well-known art dealer in deep financial trouble after the stock market crash. In her absence, Cowles took Gagosian to his mother’s home to see Girl in the Mirror and discuss how much money they might be able to get from the sale. Gagosian took the painting on consignment and promised to seek $3 million for it, in exchange for $500,000 commission. The gallery now claims Mr. Cowles misrepresented his mother’s willingness to sell the Lichtenstein.
By July 2009 things start to get really stinky.
…According to the e-mails, the gallery had offered the painting for considerably less to a collector, Thompson Dean, a managing partner of a private equity firm, telling Mr. Dean that he had an opportunity to get an incredible bargain. “Seller now in terrible straits and needs cash,” said a July e-mail to Mr. Dean from a Gagosian staff member. “Are you interested in making a cruel and offensive offer? Come on, want to try?”
Dean accepts and Gagosian takes a one million dollar commission, a sum the gallery says included another painting. Coincidentally, the sale of that work also generated lawsuit. Needless to say, Mrs. Cowles’s lawyers are seeking $10 million in punitive damages. Mrs. Cowles has suffered from dementia for several years now, so this should appeal to the sympathies of the court. It remains to be seen how rosey her son will come out smelling. Selling your mom’s stuff without her permission isn’t exactly all on the up and up.