Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Art Loss Register and Jack Solomon facing lawsuit over their part in Norman Rockwell title dispute

Norman Rockwell, Russian Schoolroom
It took years, and cost her a fortune in legal fees, but in 2010, US art dealer Judy Goffman Cutler finally won title to the Norman Rockwell painting which she legitimately bought and rightfully owned but which had been challenged by the painting's former owner, Jack Solomon.

Solomon, who for a time pressed his claim with the support of the Art Loss Register (ALR), was eventually described by the presiding judge in the case as "not credible."

Now Mrs Cutler has filed an official complaint in Las Vegas Federal Court, suing Solomon, the Art Loss Register, and Christopher Marinello, executive director of the ALR, seeking "punitive damages for abuse of process and conspiracy."

The original case was a tangled web of claim and counter-claim, but at its heart was an attempt by Solomon to claim ownership of a painting for which he had already benefited financially on two previous occasions. Courthouse News Service, the California-based nationwide news service for lawyers and news media, reported on Thursday that Christopher Marinello of the Art Loss Register was listed as one of Solomon's attorneys in his original complaint. The Courthouse News article goes on to state: "But Marinello would later testify in a separate proceeding that he never was Solomon's attorney and that he agreed to add his name as the attorney of record in order to 'give it some kind of added cachet or publicity that the Art Loss Register, as an organization, was blessing [Solomon's] cause.'" Why a connection with the ALR could be assumed to "add cachet" has never been explained.

Solomon, a Missouri-based art dealer and Rockwell specialist, bought the painting — Russian Schoolroom, (above left) — in 1971 for $5,000. Two years later, he sold it through his Arts International gallery in Clayton, Missouri to Bert Elam, a collector, for $25,000. Elam agreed to leave the picture on temporary display at the gallery for the duration of a Rockwell exhibition. A few days later, on 24 June 1973, the painting was stolen from the gallery by persons unknown. Solomon and his gallery reimbursed Elam for the loss and made an insurance claim, which was duly compensated by the gallery's insurer, Chubb. 

In 1988, the painting resurfaced at Morton M. Goldberg Auction Rooms in New Orleans, consigned for sale by "a couple" whose identity has never been established. Solomon was contacted by the auctioneer and was sent a catalogue, the front cover of which showed a colour illustration of the painting. The auction was also widely advertised in the trade press, including a page in Antiques and the Arts Weekly in October 1988, in which the painting was illustrated (right).

Judy Goffman Cutler was also contacted by auctioneer Morton Goldberg, who was aware of her status as America's pre-eminent dealer in Norman Rockwell's work. Mrs Cutler has a New York gallery specialising in American illustration and is also co-founder, with her husband Laurence, of the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, Rhode Island. Prior to the auction, Morton Goldberg requested Mrs Cutler's interest in Russian Schoolroom in a price range of $90,000-100,000. She politely declined it at that price level, but made an index card to take note of it, which she filed away.

Soon after, on seeing that the painting was coming under the hammer at Goldberg's 'Louisiana Purchase Auction,' where it was now estimated at $80,00-100,000, Mrs Cutler requested a catalogue for the sale (below left). She then began conducting her own extensive due diligence inquiries into the picture's provenance. Finally satisfied that it could legitimately be bought, Mrs Cutler bid for the picture and secured it at the sale on 29 October 1988 for $64,000 ($70,400 including auctioneer's fees).

Being the new proud owner of the painting, Mrs Cutler set about alerting the Rockwell collectors among her clients and advertising it for sale. What she was unaware of at this point, but which emerged in the subsequent court case, was that behind the scenes Solomon had cut a deal with Goldberg Auction Rooms prior to the sale. Despite having been paid out by his insurers in 1973, Solomon arranged with Goldberg that 10% of the auction proceeds would go to Goldberg, $20,000 would be paid to Chubb and that Solomon and the consignor would split the remaining proceeds 50/50. The identity of the consignor remains shrouded in mystery. What is also unclear is why the consignor — who must have acquired it in good faith — agreed to split the proceeds with Solomon, who had already been recompensed for the original theft and thus had no legitimate title to the painting. Unfortunately Goldberg Auction Rooms long ago went out of business and its records have vanished. Who consigned the painting to auction? How, and from whom, did they acquire it?

In September 1989, Mrs Cutler sold Russian Schoolroom to her long-time client, the film director Steven Spielberg, who is also an enthusiastic Rockwell collector. Nothing further emerged until 2004 when an unknown person alerted the FBI to the 1973 theft. The FBI staff were unaware at that time that the case had been effectively resolved in 1988 when Solomon consented to the auction. In 2007, one of Steven Spielberg's staff became aware that investigations were being conducted and contacted Judy Goffman Cutler.

Mrs Cutler then gave Steven Spielberg a Rockwell painting of comparable value and importance in order to remove him from the case and thereby save him the embarrassment. The Russian Schoolroom was placed into storage and Mrs Cutler and Solomon proceeded to argue their claims to title.

In April 2010, Judge Roger L. Hunt, presiding in the District Court for the District of Nevada, awarded title to Russian Schoolroom to Mrs Cutler.

Whether Mrs Cutler will succeed in her official complaint against Solomon and the ALR just filed in the Las Vegas Federal Court remains to be seen. However, one can understand how an honest art dealer who conducted extensive due diligence before acquiring a picture would seek recompense for the enormous sums subsequently expended in defending both her good title to the work in question and her reputation. At the very least the outcome of the case should act as a warning to all those who attach themselves to an illegitimate claim, either wilfully in order to acquire some prospective reward, or by failing to do their own due diligence into the parties involved.

As Julian Radcliffe, Chairman of the Art Loss Register himself commented recently with regard to another title dispute: "Anyone, including lawyers, who think that they can obtain rewards for the return of stolen art without providing full information on who had them and why, should be prosecuted."