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Cornering a Market for Afrian Art?

HOUSTON (CN) - An attorney sued a former client for $18.75 million, claiming he's owed that money for negotiating a settlement to recover the man's collection of rare African tribal art.

Ronald Kormanik sued Victor Seghers and his company Tikar Inc. in Harris County Court.

Kormanik claims Seghers hired him in July 2005 to bring claims against a man living in Cameroon named Emmanuel Mbiam.

Mbiam is not a party to Kormanik's lawsuit.

"Mbiam had control over an art collection of ancient artifacts that had been gathered and collected by Seghers, representing and depicting the skills and culture of artisans of the Tikar tribe," the complaint states. (pg. 2/graph 2)

The Tikar live in northwest Cameroon and number about 25,000. They are known for their masks.

Korminak claims: "Seghers had spent millions collecting this art, millions more in bribes and tribute to Mbiam, but did not have the art itself because of a desire on the part of Mbiam to maintain economic leverage over Seghers.

"The value of this art collection was estimated to be as high as $750 million.

"Part of Segher's plan and thought was to be the world's largest owner and collector of Tikar art, and to be the single source for anyone interested in this rare and valuable form of ancient African art."

Kormanik says Seghers moved part of the collection to a warehouse in Temple, Texas where he still stores it.

"The amount of art controlled by Mbiam, however, was vast and constituted an unknown but large percentage of the entire collection and a large percentage of all known Tikar art," the complaint states.

"Without complete control of this entire collection, however, Seghers' plans were incapable of realization, and he needed to get his art back from Mbiam.

"Kormanik devised a plan for the acquisition and capture of Seghers' art collection from Mbiam, sued Mbiam in Texas, and against all odds was able to negotiate a settlement.

"Kormanik later traveled to Cameroon, where Mbiam and the remaining part of the art collection resided, with Seghers and others to supervise the physical transfer of the art collection and ensure that the settlement terms were effectuated.

"This very successful engagement was documented in a contract wherein Seghers agreed to pay Kormanik a negotiated hourly fee, but also agreed to transfer ownership to Kormanik of 2.5 percent of the art collection to Kormanik for his legal services against Mbiam and others."

But Kormanik says:" Now that Seghers has control of all of his art, he has sworn under oath that the art has no value in an attempt to avoid paying to Kormanik the amount agreed upon in the contract.

"In the meantime, Seghers has control of the art collection and has a fiduciary responsibility for the care of this collection and taking steps to preserve and enhance the value of this art collection.

"Yet, Seghers has failed to take reasonable steps to preserve and enhance the value of the art collection, and instead has jeopardized the value of this collection as a whole, and Kormanik's portion of it in particular.

"In order to preserve his portion of his asset, Kormanik needs the collection to be subject to partition wherein a proper allocation to Kormanik may be accomplished."


Kormanik claims that due to Seghers' "incredibly poor management and stewardship of this collection," his former client has "taken an asset which he represented was worth at least $25 million, and worked its value down to the zero value he has sworn to in his affidavit."

"Kormanik seeks an accounting of the entire Tikar art collection, which is spread over three continents, an appraisal from a third party appraiser who will determine the value of each piece in the collection so as to come up with a total value, and the appointment of a special master to allocate the pieces in the collection to the various owners of the collection," the complaint states.

"The costs of this partition should be allocated entirely to Seghers, whose conduct has made this necessary."

Though Seghers said the collection was worth $25 million, an appraiser he hired valued it at $750 million, Kormanik claims.

"This appraisal alone means that Kormanik has been damaged in a sum of $18.75 million," according to the complaint.

Kormanik also wants treble damages of $56.25 million, for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, conversion and breach of contract.

He is represented by Brock Akers with Phillips Akers Womac in Houston.

This is Seghers' and Kormanik's second round of litigation over the art collection.

Kormanik and Houston attorney Michael Sydow sued Seghers in 2006, claiming he owed them for devising a marketing plan for the collection.

Seghers countersued in Harris County Court, alleging that after Kormanik helped him get back the collection, Kormanik persuaded him to hire Sydow, Kormanik's friend and former law partner, to market the art.

"Kormanik and Sydow painted themselves as the answer to all of Seghers' and Tikar Inc.'s problems," Seghers said in his counterclaim.

"Although ... neither Kormanik nor Sydow has any experience in marketing a specialized product such as rare African art, the two trial lawyers set about to convince Seghers that he and Tikar Inc. should hire Kormanik and Sydow to attempt to meet with and convince a slew of super-wealthy African-American entertainers to invest tens of millions to buy out Tikar Inc's art collection and fund its future endeavors," according to the countersuit. "It was even suggested that Oprah Winfrey was likely to participate."

The countersuit adds: "Kormanik and Sydow, however, were extremely vague about how exactly two Houston trial lawyers were going to achieve this goal and exactly what services they were going to perform.

"In fact, there was little more than wishful thinking behind this scheme, which was based on the theory that Sydow's connections with certain minimally famous African-American celebrities would lead, in an unbroken chain, to the unbridled support of the likes of Halle Berry and Oprah Winfrey.

"However, after three days of meetings with Kormanik and Sydow, both in Bell County at Tikar's facilities and Seghers' then residence and at Kormanik's and Sydow's shared offices in Houston, Seghers was worn down and eventually, based on the trust he had developed in his attorney Kormanik, and the extreme confidence that Kormanik and Sydow expressed in their scheme, Seghers finally capitulated to their demands and wrote them a retainer check for $110,000, which came out of Seghers' retirement funds.

"Seghers made that deposit or retainer to be held in trust against future services by Kormanik and Sydow, once those services were better defined and agreed to."

Seghers claimed that he "became very uneasy with both the scheme that Kormanik and Sydow were proposing and the manner in which he had been manipulated," so three days after he gave them the $110,000 check he asked for a refund, and told them he wanted out.

But Kormanik and Sydow refused to return the $110,000 or a $20,000 retainer Seghers had paid them, and sued him for breach of contract, Seghers claimed. Seghers then filed his counterclaim seeking return of the $130,000.

The case went to trial in February 2009.

A jury ruled in Seghers' favor and the court ordered Korminak to pay him back.

Korminak and Sydow appealed.

The Texas 14th Court of Appeals in Houston affirmed.

Korminak and Sydow filed a petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court, which denied it.

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