Court Fight Over Signed First-Edition Wilde

     MANHATTAN (CN) – A Londoner scuttled a Sotheby’s auction of a signed first edition of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with perfectly spurious claims that the book had been stolen from his mother, a New Yorker claims in court.
     Elia Zois sued Sotheby’s and Henry Harrod in New York County Supreme Court. Zois claims the first edition could have brought six figures at auction.
     Wilde’s 1895 comedy of manners lambasted Victorian morality, in a tale of troubled love, double lives, social standing and cucumber sandwiches. It’s the best-known work of the Irish wit.
     The lawsuit it spawned recalls an epigram from the play: “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”
     Zois claims he bought the book from renowned antiquarian bookseller John Fleming for “thousands of dollars” in 1985.
     “The book, which is signed by Oscar Wilde, was originally given to Wilde’s friend Frances Forbes-Robertson on the occasion of her marriage and is inscribed ‘To Frankie: on her happy marriage from her old friend and comrade the author. June ’99,'” the complaint states.
     Zois claims he enjoyed the book for 26 years before consigning it to Sotheby’s in November 2012, where it was listed in its catalogue and assigned an estimated value of $100,000 to $150,000.
     About a month later, Sotheby’s received an email from Harrod’s lawyer, nonparty Andy Kerman, dated Dec. 6, according to the complaint.
     “In this email, Mr. Kennan claims that the book was originally given to defendant Harrod’s grandmother, Frances Forbes-Robertson in June 1899 and that the book passed to defendant Harrod’s father upon the death of his grandmother, and then to defendant Harrod’s mother upon his father’s death,” the complaint states. “Mr. Kerman’s email further claims that the book was stolen from his mother in the early 1980’s.”
     No one ever reported the theft to the authorities, filed a police report or included the book as a stolen artifact on any registry, Zois says in the complaint. But the email demanded that Sotheby’s “hold the book and not return it to the consignor.”
     Zois and Harrod negotiated and agreed that Zois would collect 80 percent of the auction and that Harrod would get the remainder, according to the complaint.
     Zois says Sotheby’s agreed to waive its commission.
     The agreement stipulated that if the book didn’t sell, Sotheby’s would keep it “until all issues regarding this title claim have been resolved, either by agreement among the parties or a final, non-appealable order from a court of competent jurisdiction,” according to the complaint.
     Nobody bid on the book at auction, “due to defendant Harrod’s unfounded claim of title,” Zois claims.
     Zois demands that Sotheby’s give him the book back, and he wants $362,500 in damages from Harrod for slander of title and tortious interference.
     He is represented by Stephen Meister of Meister Seelig & Fein.
     Lawyers for Sotheby’s and Harrod did not respond to a request for comment.

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