MANHATTAN (CN) – The childhood friend of a disgraced art dealer claims in court that he bought a one-third interest in Andrew Wyeth’s “Ice Storm,” before a betrayal that is a footnote a major art fraud from the turn of the century.
In his autobiography, Wyeth revealed that the painting depicted his neighbor staring “broodingly” at the sleet falling outside the window of his Pennsylvania studio, in an example of the artist’s regionalist style focusing on rural life.
Turbulence also surrounds the artwork’s journey to Christie’s, where it fetched $820,000 at auction in May.
Plaintiff Reed Galin, a former TV news anchor from Tennessee, demands the proceeds of that sale in a lawsuit that he filed on Wednesday against the Japanese gallery that consigned the painting for auction.
The defendants, collector Kunitaki Hamada and his Gallery Hamada, denied any wrongdoing through their attorney.
Galin alleges that the gallery should have known the painting’s provenance was fishy because it once belonged to his lifelong friend David Ramus, who was convicted of defrauding dozens of art collectors in 1996.
“The story of Ramus’ rise and fall was major news in the art world at that time, and was widely reported,” the complaint notes.
Ramus stacked up millions in debt before taking a heroin-fueled nosedive that landed him a federal prison sentence, national media attention and a literary career writing thrillers about the art-world underbelly.
Well before that, however, Galin says that Ramus convinced him to pay more than $106,000 for a partial interest in “Ice Storm,” with a promise that he would get a return on his investment plus 25 percent of any resale of the painting.
“They had attended elementary school together, they were college roommates together, and [Galin] was even named godfather to Ramus’ child,” Galin’s 14-page complaint states. “In short, this was not a typical arms’ length dealer/consignor relation. Rather, it was a fiduciary relation based upon trust and a long-standing friendship.”
Months after their agreement, Ramus secretly transferred the painting’s title to the now-defunct Coe-Kerr Gallery in Manhattan, but he pretended to keep on trying to find a buyer in a letter to Galin four years later, according to the lawsuit.
“I shall do my very best to sell the Wyeth for a profit and will keep you informed of my progress,” the letter said, according to the complaint. “It is unfortunate that the art market has fallen so drastically but I will do my best to conclude a sale.”
Galin only learned his friend had told him “bald-faced lies” once “papers seized from Ramus during court proceedings” came to light, the lawsuit says.
A U.S. Attorney designated Galin “one of the several dozen victims” of Ramus’ crimes, he says.
“Around this time, amazingly enough, Ramus wrote a novel about the art world, and received an advance from its publisher of $1 million,” the complaint notes.
That novel, “The Thief of Light,” revolved around a protagonist who was an underground art dealer who sells forgeries to feed his drug habit.
On top of the advance, Ramus collected “at least another half million dollars for foreign rights” to the book but little of that windfall helped to compensate the victims, according to the lawsuit.
Galin says that Ramus only gave him “a token payment” of $359.
Meanwhile, Ramus’ newfound literary career fueled national media attention of his criminal prosecution in the Chicago Tribune, People magazine and National Public Radio.
“As a result of the extensive publicity, some valuable artworks, or the proceeds from their sales, were eventually recovered and clawed back to their rightful owners,” the lawsuit says. “But ‘Ice Storm’ was not one of them.”
Galin says Coe-Kerr shuttered long before he learned about the fraud, and he lost track of the painting after that.
“For about 20 years, from 1995 until May 2015, [Galin] and his counsel sought to learn the whereabouts of the painting, without success,” the lawsuit says. “From time to time, plaintiff periodically inquired of art dealers, and searched for it, especially when the Internet became a valuable resource in later years.”
Ramus declared bankruptcy twice after his conviction, and Galin says he did not waive his rights as one of his “non-settling creditors.”
This lawsuit, however, does not name Ramus as a defendant.
Galin wants to the court to order Christie’s to direct the proceeds of the sale to him through an equitable lien and a constructive trust.
A Christie’s spokeswoman told Courthouse News that the auction house is “aware of but not involved in this dispute.”
“By prior agreement with both parties, we will continue to hold the sale proceeds while the parties work toward resolution of this matter,” she said.
Galin’s lawyer Richard Altman agreed in a phone interview that the auction house had “done nothing wrong.”
Attorney John Cahill, who represents Hamada and his gallery, denounced the lawsuit in a phone interview as an “opportunistic” attack “victimizing an innocent person.” He added that his Japanese client purchased the canvas from a “reputable buyer” and had not heard of Ramus’ sensational, decades-old art crime.
“The vast majority of people who buy from people who are ultimately deemed crooks are allowed to keep their paintings because they bought in good faith,” he said.
This occurred repeatedly in the case of art thief Larry Salander, who was convicted five years ago for a $120 million fraud in Manhattan.
“There were literally hundreds of people who bought Salander paintings, and they got to keep them,” Cahill said.
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