In June 1981, court documents show, Canadian Jolles Shefner found herself in Paris, where she purchased Le boeuf (Piece of Beef), one of a series of 10 butcher-shop paintings by expressionist Chaim Soutine, for $68,000. She had the painting wrapped to go, and it was shipped to her home in Montreal, where it hung in the living room until the spring of 2004.
Soutine, a Lithuanian who moved to Paris in 1913, was fascinated by the meatpacking district there, and he regularly visited slaughterhouses for close-up views of his subject. The painting purchased by Shefner seems as much reminiscent of a human torso as an upcoming barbecue.
Like any good hanging beef, the Soutine work became more valuable as it aged. In May 2004, Shefner sold it for $1 million — and half a year later, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., bought the painting for $2 million.
Did the value of Soutines explode in the intervening six months or did somebody make a bad deal? Shefner’s heirs claim that after Jolles passed away in 2007, they discovered that she’d been taken advantage of and sued the middlemen in the transaction, as well as the National Gallery of Art, for what amounts to fraud. Although the exact chain of events is still up for dispute, what’s clear is that New York–based Soutine experts Maurice Tuchman and Esti Dunow were involved in the purchase of the painting from Shefner and the sale to the NGA.
Tuchman and Dunow are scholars and the authors of Soutine’s catalogue raisonné, the authoritative listing of the artist’s known output. As such, Shefner’s estate claimed, they used their knowledge of the market to improperly encourage and profit from a sale at far below the market price.
The estate further claimed the NGA was remiss in not investigating the provenance of the painting — and discovering the questionable dealing — and should return it to the family.
A key element of the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan last month, is that in providing Shefner with a list of comparable sales, Tuchman and Dunow “omitted at least half a dozen sales of Soutine paintings that had occurred between 1994 and 2004 at prices in excess of $1 million.”
Tuchman and Dunow, who have never been publicly accused of any other improprieties, denied all of the substantive allegations. They asserted in a pretrial conference that Ariela Braun, Jolles Shefner’s daughter and one of the heirs, had obtained an independent valuation from an auction house that supported the fairness of the $1 million price tag.
But Tuchman and Dunow have nevertheless agreed to pay $210,000 to settle the suit in a complex deal that will send the painting back to the Shefner heirs and provide a small profit to the NGA.
According to the settlement, Tuchman and Dunow, by dint of their Soutine expertise, agreed to authenticate the painting and maintain a provenance listing in their records that indicates they were involved with the intermediaries, though whether as owners or agents is left unclear.
For its part, the NGA seems to get out of the deal with nothing lost except for what might have been a bargain on the painting. Besides the cash from Tuchman and Dunow, the museum will receive from Ariela Braun and her brother Barry Shefner $1,325,000 in cash and a seven-year, interest-bearing promissory note for $650,000. Together, all three payments total $2,185,000, which seems to compensate the NGA for the original payment plus the time and legal bother of defending the suit.
The government-owned gallery will be deaccessioning a work, which is counter to its general policy, but a spokeswoman pointed out that the deal does contain a small profit for the institution. The gallery will maintain possession of the painting and may exhibit it until the promissory note is paid.
Other than the press release, a Shefner spokesman referred questions to the court documents. Georges Lederman, who represented Tuchman and Dunow, said the pair paid the settlement to avoid a costly and time-consuming legal battle, and he pointed out that they had neither admitted to nor been found culpable of any of the allegations.
The settlement does not include two other defendants, Galerie Cazeau-Béaudière and Lontrel Trading, the former a Parisian art gallery that is winding down its business, the latter apparently a Swiss trading company.
Tuchman and Dunow said at the pretrial conference that they had approached Shefner on behalf of Galerie Cazeau-Béaudière, which was sponsoring publication of the catalogue raisonné, “acting anonymously” as is “customary in the art world.” The Shefners’ complaint makes much of the allegation that the relationship with the gallery was concealed from their mother, and that the sales contract for the painting listed the purchaser as Lontrel Trading. The Shefners claim they had been led to believe that Lontrel was linked to a group of private Swiss investors.
The Shefners allege that the NGA had been trying to acquire the painting since right around the time it was sold, and that even at $2 million it was paying below the market price. In November 2004, they said, a Soutine still life that was not in the beef series was sold for $5 million and a portrait for $6 million. They maintained that these paintings probably should have been worth less than a work from the well-known beef series.
Although Barry Shefner and his sister, Ariela Braun, aided their mother in communicating with Tuchman and Dunrow, they maintain that they were simply intermediaries because of Jolles Shefner’s advancing age, and that the decision to sell was entirely hers.
Lontrel never responded to the suit, leaving it open to a default judgment. Galerie Cazeau-Béaudière sent a letter to the court, signed by Danielle Cazeau, widow of the co-founder. Her husband, Jacques Cazeau, had passed away in August 2007, and she was winding down the company, which, she said, did not have the wherewithal to defend a case in America.
Her tone was contrite, which probably won’t help her avoid a default judgment, but the letter closed with a tart observation: “I hardly see how a person who has sold a work, surrounded by the advice of persons close to her, for a price which was the market price at the time, can question this sale today, through her heirs, and seek to establish the liability for our company, which was never in contact with her.”