We don’t want to be one of those tabloid-esque publications with misleading headlines, but poor Piet Mondrian has been the centre of some legal wrangling recently. The first one was straight up theft: in case you’ve been missing the headlines, Greece has been basically declared insolvent as a whole and many of the nation’s government institutions have had to fire staff – or drastically reduce hours – in order to cope with budget cuts. This has included security guards at many of Greece’s museums and ancient sites and thieving humans have been quick to jump at the opportunity for theft: Last month, artworks by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian were stolen from the National Gallery in Athens, the canvas artworks estimated at $6.5 million. The latter, however, is more to do with legal convention and whether a contract was enforceable between a dispute over a Mondrian painting.
In other news this month from New York, a judge has dismissed a law suit from an Upper East Side art gallery which claimed it had an enforceable contract over the sale of a $6.5 million Piet Mondrian painting, entitled Composition from 1923. According to online news reports, the founder of Edelman Arts on East 74th Street, Asher Edelman, negotiated the sale of the Mondrian painting for a client in 2005. As U.S. District Judge Richard Holwell summarized: “By simultaneously negotiating to buy the painting and to sell it, Edelman was engaged in arranging a back-to-back transaction, one in which an art dealer has both a buyer and seller in place and is prepared to take payment from the buyer and pay its own price over to the seller upon receipt of that payment from the buyer. Such transactions are common in the art world.”
It’s worth examining the case in more detail for those more interested in the business end of the art world. Edelman Arts bought the Mondrian painting Composition, which it hoped to sell to London-based Art International U.K.; Art International U.K. in turn hoped to sell the world to the German gallery, Galerie G. The key thing to understand here is that Art International said it conditioned its procurement of the Mondrian painting on Galerie G’s prepayment, but Galerie G did not end up paying anything. In fact, Galerie G was not even part of the lawsuit. As Judge Holwell noted: “It was undisputed at trial that the subject of the condition precedent, i.e., that funds be received from Galerie G, never occurred. Accordingly, the agreement cannot be the basis for a breach of contract claim, and judgment must be entered in favour of Art International”.
To be clear, that meant that the lawsuit could not be enforced and Art International was not liable for any damages. An attorney for Art International, Katherine Perrelli said her clients welcomed the statement. “The extensive litigation surrounding the proposed transaction involved multiple parties on either side from several different countries, with the ultimate seller of the painting several times removed from the entity with whom our client was dealing.” So there you go, readers. Be wise when entering these piggyback agreements – you don’t necessarily want to be stuck with an oil painting that you don’t want – then again, who wouldn’t want a Mondrian Composition?