Banksy Sales Inspire $1M Fraud Claim

MANHATTAN (CN) – Digging into the sales of paintings by Jasper Johns, Banksy and others, a California businessman claims in a federal complaint that he invested more than $1 million with someone who purported to be the personal art adviser to the prince of Wales.

New York attorney Gabriel Fischbarg represents the frustrated plaintiff behind the suit filed Thursday in Manhattan. Dripping with references to iconic works from the last century, from “Numbers” to “Girl With Balloon,” the 21-page complaint describes a partnership built on fantastic claims.

When the plaintiff, James Whitely, got into business with New York art dealer Atam Sahamnian in fall 2016, he says Sahamnian boasted about his years in the business, saying he both brokered as the dealer and purchased personally “at least 20 artworks worth more than $50,000 each since 1999.”

Sahmanian counted Warhols, Basquiats and Picassos in his private collection, and he claimed to have “bought and sold over 1,000 Picassos over the years as either a dealer or for his personal collection,” according to the complaint.

In addition to claiming that he had special clearance from Britain’s royal family to personally advise the prince of Wales on art, Sahmanian allegedly claimed to have sold more than $300 million worth of pieces to a group of “Texans” who were still his clients.

Reached over the phone for comment on Whitely’s fraud claims, Sahmanian declined to comment on all but one detail.

He called the allegation about his experience with Picassos “ridiculous,” saying a thousand-plus sales would have made him an unrealistically wealthy dealer.

Whitely’s lawsuit looks not at Picassos, however, but at 10 more modern artworks that the two men allegedly agreed to buy and sell, with an even split on the proceeds.

In exchange for putting up half the purchase price, Whitely says he had to sign off on every purchase and sale of artwork.

On paper, according to the complaint, business was good.

Whitely says he either texted or gave verbal confirmation over the phone for Sahmanian to buy one work by Johns, one by David Hockney, one by Tom Wesselmann and seven by Banksy, beginning in November 2016.

With Whitely’s permission, according to the complaint, Sahmanian later sold all but two of the Banksys and the Hockney, an original artwork called “Kviknes Hotel,” for varying markups.

Whitely says the sale of Johns’ “Numbers” for $380,000 was nearly twice what he and Sahmanian had paid.

The markup on Wesselmann’s “Study for Great American,” according to the complaint, was more modest: bought for $180,000 and sold for $200,000.

Bought for $50,000, Banksy’s “Soupcan” was supposed to have fetched a big profit as well. Oddly, though, the complaint puts Oct. 5, 2017 — the same day the case was filed — as the date of its $75,000 sale.

Whitely says he is still waiting both on dividends and proof of his partnership’s very existence.

“Despite plaintiff’s repeated requests for proof of any of the foregoing alleged sales and purchases, defendants have refused to provide plaintiff with any proof whatsoever, including, without limitation, proof of storage of any artwork, invoices, purchase orders, bank statements and contracts for purchase of the artwork,” the complaint states. “Accordingly, upon information and belief, none of the purchases and sales described above actually occurred. Alternatively, upon information and belief, some or all of the purchases and sales described above occurred at prices different from those represented by defendants to plaintiff. Upon information and belief, the defendants’ misrepresentations regarding such alleged purchases and sales were part of a scheme by defendants to defraud plaintiff.”

Whitely does claim to have received $347,500 in reimbursements, but claims that the full amount owed to him is more than $1.1 million.

“Kviknes Hotel,” the unsold watercolor by Hockney, was bought for $2.1 million, according to the complaint.

Whitely says he wants to know where that work is, as well the two unsold Banksys, “Heavy Weaponry” and “Sprung Horse.”

Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon” was bought for $140,000 and sold for $160,000 this past June, according to the complaint.

The other three successfully sold Banksys are “Christ,” bought for $60,000 and sold for $90,000; “Happy Chopper,” bought for $65,000 and sold for $80,000; and “Choose Your Weapon,” bought for $75,000 and sold for $90,000.

Whitely wants an accounting and for the court to name him as sole owner of the disputed works, alleging fraud, negligent misrepresentation, conversion and other claims.

A website for the art broker says Atam Sahmanian Inc. has been in business since 1983.

Sahmanian is the owner of Paris Custom Shirtmakers Inc., which is named as co-defendant. The company was founded by his father Mark Sahmanian in 1974.

Atam Sahmanian told Cigar Aficionado in 1997 that the custom garment company has “a number of prestigious customers,” but kept the names private.  

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