Art Law: French Judgment Against Expert in Max Ernst Forgery Case Set Aside

Max_Ernst_1976In May 2013, we reported that a French court, the Tribunal de grande instance de Nanterre, had ordered art historian and former Centre George Pompidou director Werner Spies to pay damages in the order of EUR 650,000 to the purchaser of a painting. The Art Newspaper now reports that on appeal, the judgment has been set aside.

The painting in question, Tremblement de terre, purportedly was a work of Max Ernst. Spies, a world-leading expert on Max Ernst, had, according to the Tribunal de grande instance de Nanterre, authenticated the painting and delivered an expert opinion on which the purchaser had relied. Tremblement de terre, however, turned out to be fake. It had been produced by Wolfgang Beltracchi, the man at the centre of Germany’s biggest art scandal in recent history.

The first instance court had held Werner Spies liable to the purchaser. In its judgment last week, however, the Cour d’Appel de Versailles, overturned the 2013 judgment against Spies.  According to the Art Newspaper, the court said that “the author of a catalogue raisonné who expresses an opinion outside of a determined transaction cannot be charged with a responsibility equivalent to that of an expert consulted in the context of a sale”. It also said that it “cannot be required of the author of a catalogue raisonné to subject each work in a catalogue published under his responsibility to the execution of a scientific expert assessment, which requires the removal of fragments of the work and represents a significant cost”.

To me, the distinction between an opinion expressed in a catalogue raisonné on the one hand and a dedicated opinion rendered in conjunction with the sale of an individual piece of art on the other hand makes perfect sense. Under German law, the same distinction would have to be made.

The photo shows Max Ernst in 1976. (c) Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Allgemen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO). 

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