MANHATTAN (CN) – A woman who unwittingly bought a stolen masterpiece painted by Camille Pissarro cannot hold onto the painting or receive any compensation, the 2nd Circuit ruled.
In 1981, more than 100 years after French impressionist Camille Pissarro created “Le Marché,” a thief absconded with the monotype, a unique printed painting, from the Faure Museum in Aix-la-Bains, France, and smuggled it into the United States.
The thief, later identified as Emile Guelton, consigned the artwork to J. Adelman Antiques and Art Gallery in San Antonio, Texas, which sold the monotype in 1985 for $8,500 to the Sharan Corp.
After that company dissolved in 1992, one of its owners, Sharyl Davis, displayed “Le Marché” in her home for the next decade and consigned it to Sotheby’s, which estimated its value at $60,000 to $80,000.
When the French police found out about the impending sale through the auction house’s catalogue, they informed the United States about the museum theft. Eventually, the Department of Homeland Security pressed Sotheby’s to remove the painting from auction. To return the painting to France, the United States started forfeiture proceedings in 2006, citing a customs statute enacted as part of the Tariff Act of 1930, which authorizes forfeiture of any merchandise which is introduced into the United States contrary to law if it is “stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced.”
The government alleged a violation of the National Stolen Property Act, which criminalizes knowingly possessing or selling stolen goods valued at $5,000 or more.
Davis claimed, however, that she was not required to return the artwork as an “innocent owner.” In her defense, she pointed to a law stating, “An innocent owner’s interest in property shall not be forfeited under any civil forfeiture statute.” The court disagreed, finding that the “innocent owner” law did not apply to the case.
Davis’ remaining option was to show that the monotype was not obtained illegally. Since Guelton eventually admitted to possessing and selling “Le Marché,” and since a security guard at the French museum identified him as the man she saw running down the stairs of the museum “with something under [his] parka,” it was impossible for Davis to show Guelton’s innocence.
Davis also argued that the painting was not properly assessed at more than $5,000, which is the limit for forfeiture. She said that the provisions allowing forfeiture of items illegally brought to the United States should specifically be interpreted as “contrary to customs law.” She also claimed that taking the artwork violated the excessive fines and takings clauses of the Eighth and Fifth Amendments.
Last year a federal jury ruled that the monotype should return to France in accordance with the National Stolen Property Act. Later the court also denied Davis’ request for attorneys’ fees reimbursement.
The 2nd Circuit Court upheld both decisions on June 3, rejecting Davis’ argument that she deserved attorneys’ fees since the trial court had dismissed two of the government’s three forfeiture.
Davis had also argued that U.S. law protects her claim against the Musée Faure, since she bought the painting without knowledge of its having been stolen.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Gerard Lynch compared the case to the Biblical story of Solomon, in which two women claim motherhood of a single child. “Unlike in the Judgment of Solomon, neither party has blinked, and we are therefore in the unenviable position of determining who gets the artwork, and who will be left with nothing despite a plausible claim of being unfairly required to bear the loss,” Lynch wrote.
Since the seizure of “Le Marché” was remedial and not punitive, neither of Davis’s Constitutional arguments held merit, according to the federal appeals court.