Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, a major collector of modern Arab art, has filed a law suit against Sotheby's for misleading him about a statue he purchased made by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Mokhtar.
Mr Al Qassemi bought the bronze statue, Au Bord du Nil (On the Banks of the Nile), at a Sotheby's auction in April 2016, paying £725,000 (Dh3.6m) for the work, nearly 10 times the estimate.
The Sotheby’s catalogue for the sale listed the work’s date of casting as circa 1920s, when Mokhtar was alive.
Mr Al Qassemi and his buyer for the Barjeel Art Foundation, Charles Pocock of Meem Gallery in Dubai, say they were issued a foundry report by Sotheby’s after they bought the work, which contradicted the information in the catalogue.
They claim that the foundry report states that the sculpture was most likely cast in 1938 or 1939 – four or five years after Mokhtar’s death.
“The difference between a posthumous cast and a lifetime cast is vast,” Mr Pocock said.
Mr Al Qassemi's lawyers estimate the value of a posthumous cast of the Mokhtar sculpture to be £70,000 – a tenth of the original price.
“We have never disputed that the work is by Mokhtar,” Mr Pocock said. “We were going on the foundry report issued to us by Sotheby’s after the sale that the work not a lifetime cast as published and the work was miscatalogued.
"To quote their own warranty, if the work is miscatalogued and the value has been affected, Sotheby’s will return the value in full. This is what we requested, and they threw it back in our faces.”
Sotheby’s stress that the original date in the catalogue was sufficiently vague.
“In the cataloguing for this work we deliberately used the word circa, without suggesting an exact date.”
Moreover, they dispute the information given by the foundry, saying that it has since been revised in two further hypotheses, as they put it in a statement.
At issue is a marking that the Susse Foundry, where the sculpture was cast, began placing on statues after 1935. Sotheby’s claim this sculpture does not have the marker.
“The available information strongly supports the view that this is a lifetime cast. Of the six models produced, five were completed within the artist's lifetime [1891 to 1934], and the sculpture sold by Sotheby’s does not bear the bronze stamp that was required by French law from 1935 onwards,” the auction house said.
A further wrinkle emerged when, after the case had been brought forward in UK court, Sotheby’s disclosed the identity of the consignor of the work. It was Nesreen Farag, a New York art dealer, and the mother of the Sotheby’s Modern Arab Art specialist, Mai Eldib, who brokered the consignment.
Mr Pocock says this was against Sotheby's own code of conduct, as a conflict of interest among family members.
“Mai had told me in May 2017 after the sale that she had never met the person consigning the artwork until they’d consigned the work in December, which I find quite hard to believe considering that it’s her mother,” he said.
Mr Pocock says they sought to return the work immediately after the sale, asking for a full refund. But this did not go through and lawyers were engaged.
The case is remarkable as Barjeel Art Foundation and Meem Gallery are key players in the field of modern Arab art, and all parties were well known to each other before the dispute.
Both claim that they tried to resolve the issue before bringing it to court.
“We never want a valued and respected client to be unhappy with our service,” a Sotheby’s spokesman said. “But in this case we simply could not resolve our good faith dispute, despite our very best efforts. We are confident that the court will find that Sotheby’s acted appropriately.”
Mr Pocock also claims the parties tried to resolve it amicably before filing suit.
“We made the point last year not to go to court until after they’ve had their sale,” he said, referring to the April 2017 Middle East sale in London. “Sotheby’s asked us to delay, and we delayed out of professional respect, so there was no way this case could impact on any aspects of their sale. At 4pm after the sale finished, our lawyers filed the case.”