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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Buyer Anguish Ends Week 1 of Knoedler Trial

MANHATTAN (CN) - The wife of the chairman of Sotheby's had barely taken the witness stand before erupting in tears over how the once-estimable Knoedler Gallery sold her a Mark Rothko painting for $8.2 million that turned out to be a forgery.

Standing on an easel between the jury and the witness stand Friday, the imitation Rothko - assigned the name "Untitled, 1956" - was among dozens of spurious Abstract Expressionist works whose sale shuttered the 165-year-year gallery in December 2011.

Husband and wife Domenico and Eleanore de Sole are the first to see trial this week in the cascade of lawsuits that poured into New York courts after the gallery's closing.

Mr. De Sole, who founded Tom Ford International and chairs Sotheby's board, testified earlier last week that his wife "cries every night" since she found out the Rothko was "worthless"

On the stand Friday, the wife had only been asked about her career when she reached for tissues.

The question reminded Eleanore de Sole of her 13-year tenure at IBM, where both of her parents worked before they died.

"When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to museums all the time because they were free in Washington, but not free here," she told the jury.

Today, De Sole is often described as a socialite, and she refers to herself as the unpaid secretary of her husband, a powerful lawyer and businessman in the art and fashion worlds.

Despite that resume, neither of the De Soles consider themselves art experts.

Mrs. De Sole said that the highest price they ever paid for a painting was another Rothko for about a sixth of the price. When she entered the Knoedler's doors, the De Soles had actually been looking for a work by the Irish abstract painter Sean Scully.

A Colorado neighbor of the De Soles referred them to the gallery and its former director Ann Freedman, who met with Eleanor in her New York office.

After stating that the gallery had no Scully paintings, Mrs. De Sole said, Freedman unveiled two other works that had been cloaked and standing on easels next to each other: a Rothko and a work by Jackson Pollack that is the subject of another lawsuit.

Freedman said both of the paintings had come into the gallery's possession through an anonymous Swiss collector who had died, according to De Sole's testimony.

Neither side disputes that the works actually came from the studio of Queens imitator Pei Shen Qian, but the gallery contends that the now-indicted forger was so skilled, he fooled even the most esteemed experts.

When asked if she ever had suspicions about the painting's provenance, Mrs. De Sole answered: "I didn't think about it. It was the Knoedler Gallery."

She said her husband gave the go-ahead to purchase the work in 2004, even though she thought at the time the price tag was a "shocking amount of money."

Needing a new appraisal for her insurance company four years later, De Sole said the painting still seemed to be a good investment. The Knoedler Gallery told her that its value went up to an even $9 million, evidence showed.

De Sole said she thought nothing of a letter she received informing her that the gallery was replacing Freedman as its director.

When the Knoedler closed later that month, De Sole said she read a news article on her iPad about other collectors who claimed the gallery defrauded them.

Down to a tale of a provenance tracing to anonymous Swiss collector, the story sounded eerily familiar, De Sole said.

"I went into a shaking frenzy, probably cried," she said, before removing the qualifier.

"I cried," she said, to laughter in the courthouse.

De Sole recounted earlier that she planned to bequeath the painting to one of her two feuding daughters.

As clear from the proceedings, the painting is no longer regarded as a treasured object.

Minutes before De Sole's testimony, a courtroom deputy grabbed the phony Rothko with his bare hands like a slab of beef from one end of the room to the other.

De Sole noted that this sight stood in stark contrast to the painting's once-careful voyage from the gallery to the wall of one of her homes.

"It's not something I wanted to handle like it was handled today," she said, sounding a bit startled.

Her testimony continues on Monday.

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