Auctions Art law Market

Dia founders sue to stop forthcoming auction

Heiner and Fariha Freidrich want to prevent Sotheby’s from selling works from the collection to private buyers next week

Twombly's Poems to the Sea (detail), 1959, a suite of 24 drawings from Dia's collection is due to go to auction next week at Sotheby's contemporary evening sale (est $6m-$8m)

Two founders of the New York-based Dia Art Foundation sued the organisation on Thursday to prevent it from selling a group of works from its collection next week. Dia is due to part with paintings and sculptures by Cy Twombly, John Chamberlain and Barnett Newman at Sotheby’s New York during its contemporary art auctions on 13 and 14 November. The sale is expected to raise an estimated $20m, to be used to acquire more work for the foundation’s permanent collection.

The suit, filed in New York state court, claims that the sale is a breach of contract between Dia and its founders Heiner and Fariha Freidrich, who donated or loaned the works “to form permanent collections for the public”. They acquired many of the works directly from the artists “at less than market value” because “the artists did not want these works to be sold to private collectors, which would remove [them] from public access”. The sale, therefore, “would comprise a betrayal of the Dia founders’ intent…as well as the artists’ trust and intentions”.

The Freidrichs also claim that the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection in Houston, which is dedicated to the artist’s work and was established as a collaboration between Twombly, the Menil and Dia, was interested in purchasing some of the works before the sale, but that Dia decided to proceed with the planned auction anyway. Among the works scheduled to be sold are Poems to the Sea, 1959, a suite of 24 drawings by Twombly (est $6m-$8m).

The Freidrichs have asked the judge to halt next week’s sale and prevent Sotheby’s from ever selling the works to private buyers. Sotheby’s, which is also named as a defendant, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Dia says the organisation cannot comment on pending litigation.

Update, 12 November: The two Dia founders withdrew their suit on Tuesday morning, the day before the works are scheduled to hit the block at Sotheby's. Heiner and Fariha de Menil told The New York Times through their lawyers that although they consider the sale "utterly wrong", the foundation is "our precious child" and "we do not wish to continue to oppose it through legal action". In a statement, Sotheby's said it was "pleased the suit has been withdrawn as it has always been our view that the allegations that had been made were meritless", and that it looked forward to successful sales on Wednesday and Thursday.

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