UK: Caravaggio In Court: Auction Houses, Duty Of Care And Breach Of Contract

Last Updated: 10 March 2015
Article by Rudy Capildeo and Elizabeth McClenan

In Thwaytes v Sotheby's [2015] EWHC 36 (Ch) the High Court found that Sotheby's had not been negligent in auctioning a painting as a copy, rather than as an original Caravaggio. Sotheby's was entitled to rely on its own expertise and connoisseurship, and to assess the painting first and foremost on its quality.

Background

The Claimant had owned a painting which was of the same scene as a painting by Caravaggio known as 'The Cardsharps'. In 2006 the Claimant instructed Sotheby's to examine the painting in order to determine whether the Claimant's painting was a copy, or whether it was an early work by Caravaggio himself.

Sotheby's experts examined the painting using ultra-violet light and x-ray imaging, and all agreed that it was a copy, probably by a follower of Caravaggio. The Claimant asked that the painting be auctioned by Sotheby's, where it sold at a hammer price of £42,000.

The buyer, a renowned art scholar and Caravaggio specialist, subsequently carried out his own tests and examinations. The following year the buyer announced that the painting was an original work by Caravaggio himself with an estimated value of £10 million.

The Claimant issued proceedings against Sotheby's in negligence and breach of contract.

The Dispute

The Claimant contended that Sotheby's:

i) had been wrong in its approach, namely to have assessed the painting solely in terms of its artistic quality;

ii) had failed to notice certain features of the painting which should have alerted them to the fact that it had potential to be a Caravaggio; and

iii) had been negligent in failing to inform the claimant of the high level of interest that had been shown in the painting prior to the auction.

The claimant alleged that if Sotheby's had performed its duties towards him properly, he could either have sold the painting for a much greater sum, or retained it himself at a much higher value than he had originally paid for it. The claimant further contended that the scope of Sotheby's duty of care was extended on the basis that the claimant had initially asked Sotheby's to research the painting. The claimant argued that this meant that Sotheby's was on special enquiry as to the quality and importance of the painting.

The claim was dismissed.

Duty of Care

The court held that the duty undertaken by Sotheby's when the painting was consigned to it was the duty that arose generally when an item was consigned to a leading international auction house. There were no special features in this case which extended the duty or made it more onerous.

Those who consigned their works to a leading auction house could expect that they would be assessed by highly qualified people who had access to the expert opinions of art scholars at the highest levels in the world. A leading auction house had to give the work consigned to it a proper examination, devoting enough time to it to arrive at a firm view where possible. The principle that an art expert must know his limitations and when to request the opinion of other experts applied as much to a leading auction house as it did to a provincial auction house, though the bar for this would be set at a much higher threshold in the case of a leading auction house like Sotheby's.

Assessment of the Painting

Sotheby's was entitled to rely on its own expertise and connoisseurship and to approach the painting first and foremost on its quality. There was nothing on visual examination which should have contradicted Sotheby's view that the painting was of poorer quality than the undisputed version of The Cardsharps accepted worldwide as having been painted by Caravaggio.

Sotheby's had been aware of the high level of interest shown in the painting and the day before the auction had called a further meeting of its experts (the 'Olympia' meeting) to review their findings. The experts again unanimously considered that the painting was a copy. The court found that, as with the initial assessment, there was nothing visible at the Olympia meeting that should have caused the experts to question their opinion based on the painting's quality.

The court found that Sotheby's had been entitled to rely on its specialists to examine the x-rays of the painting and that Sotheby's was under no obligation to carry out infra-red analysis of the painting. Even if infra-red analysis had been carried out, it would not have shown anything to indicate that the painting may have been an original Caravaggio.

If Sotheby's had sought an external expert opinion, it was likely that the eventual buyer would have been the scholar consulted and that he would have given his opinion that the painting was original. However, his opinion would not have altered the opinion of Sotheby's experts, and the painting would still have been auctioned as a copy, albeit with a note in the catalogue referencing the positive attribution of that scholar.

Finally, the court found it was implausible that the claimant would have withdrawn the painting from sale had he known of the Olympia meeting, and determined that that this contention was affected by the benefit of hindsight.

Summary

This case confirms established law regarding the scope of the duty of care owed by auction houses to those who consign their works to them. The court's findings affirm the decision in Luxmoore-May and Another v Messenger May Baverstock [1990] 1 WLR 1009, namely that the duty of care owed by a leading auction house will be greater than that owed by a provincial auction house which generally cannot be expected to have access to the same expertise and scholarly opinion.

It is worth noting that scholars remain divided on whether the painting in question is a Caravaggio, though it remains insured for £10 million. The message is therefore clear – those who suspect they have something special to sell at auction should obtain the expert opinion of specialists to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Check to state you have read and
agree to our Terms and Conditions

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.