After four years of a bitter duel, the Cologne-based auction house Lempertz has been officially convicted of breach of duty and care by the prosecutor of Cologne. Lempertz will then have to give back to the purchaser of the false Campendonk not only the entire sale price of the sale, but also all the costs incurred by the lengthy court proceedings.
In 2006 the important auction house Lempertz sold a painting titled Rotes Bild mit Pferden attributed to Heinrich Campendonk for a record price of 2.88 million Euros (2.4 million grant price). The Lempertz, aware of the commercial potential of the work, widely promoted the sale of the object specifying in its advertisement catalog the usual references used in case of a guaranted authenticity. After the sale, the company Trasteco Ltd. based in Malta (the buyer), mandated the Artvera's Gallery
for the acquisition of the certificate of authenticity and other documents supposed to accompany the artwork. However, when the Swiss Gallery started to work, several strange facts were discovered. Not only Lempertz refused abnormally to collaborate, but more importantly it soon became clear that no recognized expert had actually been invited by Lempertz to operate an expertise of the piece before the sale despite the fact that the work seemed to have disappeared from the market for over 86 years! Dr Andrea Firmenich, a leading expert of Campendonk and author of the Catalogue Raisonné of his paintings, had indeed never been approached by Lempertz about the matter although she lives in Cologne herself. This revealed, the investigation of the Gallery continued and many other doubtful facts were gradually added to the file.
One of the most equivocal point of the case resided in the dates presented. The couple Wolfgang and Hélène Beltracchi, supposed heirs of an also supposed collector called Werner Jäger had indeed placed on the back of the Campendonk a label of the famous Flechtheim Art Gallery property the highly respected art dealer of the same name active during the Weimar Republic. However, what should have immediately alarmed all the specialists who had access to this information but does not seem to have surprised them, is that according to the presence of this the whole chronology supplied by the Beltracchis became extremely doubtful. Following these datas, Werner Jäger would have been able to buy amazing expressionist paintings like the Campendonk in question directly from Alfred Flechtheim himself and at the age of only 16 years ! Another point that might as well have attracted the Lempertz specialists attention, was the fact that in 1995 the auction house already refused a work by Hans Purrman from the same supposed collection Jägers because the piece had being identified as a false thanks to the archives of the artist.
After these discoveries, The Artvera's Gallery directly advised its client to undertake as soon as possible scientific analyzes to push the research further. In March 2008, the Doerner Institute in Munich determined that the painted surface of the canvas was presenting White Titanium which endorsed the suspicions of the gallery. Indeed, the pigment in question had not yet been discovered in 1914, when Campendonk was supposed to have created the work. A second chemical test conducted between August and September 2008 by Art Access&Research in London corroborated the initial results. Trasteco Ltd. filed a complaint against Lempertz and also informed the German Criminal Police. Prosecutors in Cologne then opened an investigation that would lead to the greatest scandal in forgery of works of art in Germany since 1945. The couple Wolfgang and Hélène Beltracchi and two other acomplices, were charged for having produced and introduced into the art market more than 49 fake paintings. In November 2011, they were sentenced to various terms up to six years of imprisonment and 800,000 Euros penalty.
Although any real expertise had been made before the sale, Lempertz and its director Henrik Hanstein continued meanwhile to proclaim their innocence and to refuse to reimburse to the purchaser of the Campendonk more than the commission obtained after the sale arguing that all the required and usual researches before a sale had been carried out. It took 4 long years of struggle between the lawyers of Trasteco Ltd. and those of Lempertz to finally determine the liability of the latter in the case.
Already announcing past August 30th during a public hearing that the auction house had clearly failed in its duty, Judge Beck of the Cologne Regional Court had not only proved Lampertz and its defenders wrong but also shook the art market as a whole. Last Friday's verdict came nevertheless definitely endorsing this position. According to the Court, given the very high price of the work and the lack of conclusive evidence of authenticity available, Lempertz should have conduct a deeper expertise before the sale and should never ensure the authenticity by any mean.
The team of the Artvera's Gallery, and its director Sofia Komarova, rejoice deeply the verdict and that justice had finally been done. A healthier and more conscientious art market will be beneficial to everybody as well as buyers and collectors who will then feel more secure, than to merchants and auction houses that will be able to practice their business undisturbed.