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Sotheby’s takes Mark Weiss to court over contested Frans Hals

The auction house has started proceedings in English High Court to recover its losses in the sale of a work that was deemed a forgery after technical testing

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On Monday, Sotheby’s announced it would take the art dealer Mark Weiss, his gallery, and a company belonging to his partner to high court in England, to recoup its losses in the sale of the painting Portrait of a Gentleman purportedly by Frans Hals, which the auction house says was revealed to be a fake through technical analysis. Weiss has responded that he intends to vigorously contest the claim, and calls for further testing of the painting.

Last summer, Sotheby’s reimbursed the Seattle collector, Richard Hedreen, the full $10m he paid for the work in 2011. At the time of the private sale, Sotheby’s was acting on behalf of Mark Weiss, who had purchased the work (via an Italian go-between) from Giuliano Ruffini, whose name has been connected to several cases of suspected forgeries.

According to a statement from the auction house, the technical analysis conducted by Orion Analytical and peer reviewed by another conservation specialist, John Twilley, “established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery”. Since then, Sotheby’s has acquired Orion Analytical and created a new scientific department to strengthen its protection against art fraud. It recently announced that Ashok Roy, the former director of science and the collections at the National Gallery in London, is joining the team.

Mark Weiss has responded by casting doubts on the technical study, which has never been published, and pointing out that Orion Analytical is now owned by Sotheby’s. Weiss adds that at the time of the sale, “leading connoisseurs” believed the work to be by Frans Hal. Conservators he has consulted recommended the work, which according to our sources is presently in London, be subjected to further testing “before the assertion that this work is a modern fake can be definitively made”, Weiss says in a statement. But “Sotheby’s has repeatedly refused to allow Mr Weiss’s experts access to the painting to carry out the further tests required to corroborate the findings,” according to the statement.

This is not Sotheby’s only pending legal case over an alleged forgery. The auction house undertook its technical examination after being contacted in March 2016 by The Art Newspaper about paintings originating from Giuliano Ruffini. The auction house is also suing a Luxemburg-based broker, Lionel de Saint Donat-Pourrières, in New York court, to get its money back from another sale it had to rescind, a painting of Saint Jerome, which was bought at auction in 2012 by a private collector for $840,000 and was later attributed to Parmigianino when it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum.

Ruffini told us he was lucky enough to discover several works that were sold by Sotheby’s and were later attributed to Old Masters by experts and curators.