MANHATTAN (CN) — A Swiss art dealer sued the Getty Museum for $77 million, claiming that after it helped rehabilitate the museum’s bad reputation for buying looted art, the Getty iced it out of a deal it brokered to acquire part of a multibillion-dollar collection of ancient Roman statues.
Phoenix Art, of Geneva, claims the Getty Museum has a “history of dubious acquisitions and trouble with Italian authorities,” so Phoenix protected its proprietary information and trade secrets through a contract with Getty while negotiating with an Italian family that has one of the largest collections of ancient Roman art in the world. The museum, however, “stole the value of years of work and relationships cultivated by plaintiffs in violation of their contractual and legal duties,” the dealer says in the Jan. 12 federal lawsuit.
The acquisitions involved the Torlonia family, which is not a party to the lawsuit. The noble family grew to prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries and amassed a fortune while working for the Vatican. They used much of their wealth to build one of the largest collections of ancient Roman sculptures on the planet.
The collection was on display in the first half of the 20th century in the Torlonias’ private museum. The museum closed, but the collection remained with the Torlonia family.
Before Phoenix Ancient Art got involved, the Italian government refused to deal with the Getty because of the museum’s history of dubious acquisitions, according to the lawsuit.
In 2005, the Italian government demanded that the Getty Museum return 46 artifacts that it believed were stolen. After that demand, the co-defendant J. Paul Getty Trust estimated that as many as 350 pieces in its collection had been dubiously acquired, according to reports by The Guardian and The Economist.
Phoenix says it was contacted by surrogates of the Torlonia family, which was seeking a buyer for the collection. Phoenix says it worked to ease the strained relationship between the Italian government, the Torlonia family and the Getty Museum.
Once it got things smoothed out, Phoenix says, the Getty Museum stopped communicating with it about the sale.
By cutting out the middle man, the Getty Museum violated the non-circumvention contract Phoenix had insisted it sign because of the Getty’s reputation for shady dealing, according to the complaint.
Phoenix calls the Getty “the richest museum in the world,” with an endowment of more than $4 billion, which originated in a $1.2 billion inheritance from the oilman, who died in 1976.
Co-plaintiffs are Phoenix’s agent, Petrarch LLC dha Electrum, and Regulus International Capital Corp., which specializes in acquiring ancient art and brokering deal for museums.
Phoenix demands at least $77 million for fraud, breach of contract, breach of faith, tortious interference, unjust enrichment, unfair competition, misappropriation of trade secrets and conversion.
Getty spokesman Ron Hartwig called the allegations baseless.
"The Getty was offered an opportunity to discuss a possible transfer of ownership of ancient sculptures in a private collection,” Hartwig said. "The Getty declined the acquisition and the objects were later transferred to the Italian government. We do not understand how the transfer of ownership from an Italian family to the Italian government, which will display the collection in its many wonderful museums, is cause for a lawsuit against the Getty. Plaintiffs cannot plausibly demand payment for a deal that never occurred. While we believe that the complaint should be dismissed, if necessary we will vigorously defend our position."
The plaintiffs are represented by Elliot Hallak, with Harris Beach in Albany, and Michael Shore, with of Shore Chan Depumpo in Dallas.
Just last month, the FBI held a ceremony in New York to repatriate the Torlonia Peplophoros, a limbless statue was stolen along with other treasures from the Torlonia family’s two-century-old villa on Nov. 11, 1983.
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