Dickinson wins £9.1m Chardin case

December 13 2022

Image of Dickinson wins £9.1m Chardin case

Picture: Mail

The London dealer Simon Dickinson (inset, above) has won a court case in which he was sued by the owner of a Chardin - Le Benedicite - he had sold on their behalf. The owner, the Countess of Wemyss & March (right, above), maintained that the painting sold by her privately through Dickinson to another dealer, Verner Amell, as 'Chardin & Studio' for £1.4m, should have fetched a higher sum, closer to the £9.1m it made when Amell then sold it to his client, as a fully attributed 'Chardin', just over six months later. The picture (one of four versions of this famous composition) had been listed in Pierre Rosenberg's catalogue raisonne as a "copie retouchée", which I take to mean as a version made in the workshop, retouched by Chardin himself. 

The judge found in favour of Dickinson on all counts. I think, from what I've seen of the case, that this was always the likely outcome. There was a curious passage in the judgement which seemed to imply that Lady Wemyss' lawyer wanted to argue the case on the basis of the painting being either simply "autograph" or "non-autograph" - in other words, as Judge Simon Gleeson said in his judgement - 'that the art market as a whole would divide Chardin paintings as falling into only two classes – autograph and third party copies', and that "copie retouchée" meant the picture was still all by Chardin himself. Whereas Simon Dickinson's lawyers argued that it was better to think in terms of "wholly autograph" or "partially autograph". The latter is of course (as the judge agreed) correct, especially when we're dealing with so many artists who relied on studio assistants, and I'm surprissed the Wemyss' legal team tried to argue the case on this apparently flawed basis. 

We might also say that the final £9.1m figure for the painting could be said to reflect Verner Amell's skills as an art dealer as much as the merits of the painting itself. Amell's decision to purchase the painting involved a deal of risk, as he is quoted as saying in the judgement:

"When I bought the painting by Chardin and Studio, I took an enormous risk. Every single monongraph, Pierre Rosenberg, Phillip Conisbee at the National Gallery, Marianne Roland Michell, the Wildenstein Institute, and others all said the painting was an old copy or wrong. Not by the Artist…..But, I liked the painting and I thought it had a chance of being right….please remember, if we had not found the signature, we would have spent the rest of our lives arguing about the attribution and would probably have lost half our money…As you know, I have always been a gambler on paintings, and presumably that is why you offered me the Chardin, as it was a gamble"

The £9.1m figure was even described by Judge Gleeson as 'grossly inflated'. Much of the decision came down to the question of value, about which Judge Gleeson said; 'this is an exercise of the most unscientific and speculative nature imaginable'. Which I think is worth remembering, next time somebody confidently tells you what a picture is or is not worth.

Anyway, the main takeaway in all these cases is; think very, very hard about going to law about a painting. The second takeaway is, if you consign a painting to a dealer for private sale, make sure - if you don't want the shock of seeing it again for a different price - they sell it not to a dealer, but to a private collector, or, better yet, a museum.

You can read a summary of the case by barrister Michael Bowner at the Institute of Art and Law here, and the full judgement (which I have to say is really quite impressive in its grasp of all the art market issues) here

Update - I noticed this snippet in the judgement, and identify strongly with the last line:

Simon Dickinson is the key witness in this case. He is clearly, as he presents himself, a man whose life has been devoted to art. His track-record suggests that he has a formidable eye, and he has an extremely high level of confidence in his own ability to discern quality in a painting. He is not a keeper of notes, and, as he admits, his memory for anything other than paintings is questionable.

Update II - thinking further about this case, and associated cases like the Thwaytes Caravaggio case against Sotheby's, it seems to me unfortunate, to say the least, that questions over attribution and art market practice which on the surface seem quite straightforward to those operating within the art world, can take months and millions of pounds to resolve in a court of law. Moreover, some of these cases seem to be launched on the basis of one set of lawyers beginning from a weak position built on a failure to understand some pretty basic art and art market matters. Perhaps there is a need for a kind of art market tribunal, where these questions can be referred without costing so much money. But then, as they say in the legal world, 'all good things end in litigation'.  

Update III - looking further at the judgement, I do think there is one area where the judge has erred (paras 163-167), and that is in his estimation of the likely value of the painting had it 1) been accepted as a fully attributed Chardin at the time of the Wemyss sale, and 2) been subjected to an export licence stop. He calculates the former to have been £5m, but subject to the latter, reduced £4m. But the benefit of the UK export licence system is that it has very little if any impact on the value of a painting. The judge seems to have calculated his £1m export licence-related discount on the basis of someone - in this case an overseas buyer - taking a risk and buying and paying for the painting before they knew if an export licence would be granted. Whereas the UK system allows someone to apply for an export licence without first paying for an object. So there is no chance of, say, a US collector, ending up with their picture stuck with it in the UK. He also accepted the erroneous evidence of one of the expert witnesses that the fact that a painting might be subject to an export licence would affect a dealer's ability to market the painting, which is simply not true. In any case, this part of the judge's reasoning was moot, since he did not find Dickinson has been negligent at all. 

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