MANHATTAN (CN) – The Metropolitan Museum of Art claims that a donor gave it Mark Tansey’s 1981 painting “The Innocent Eye Test” before her husband secretly sold it to two private collectors. In a federal complaint, the Met demands the painting from the collectors, who previously sued the Gagosian Gallery for $46 million, claiming it had sole them the work, and others, which it did not own.
The Met claims it has shared ownership of “The Innocent Eye Test” with co-plaintiff Jan Cowles since 2001. Cowles says she bought the piece from her husband, nonparty Charles Cowles, then gave 30 percent of it to the museum.
Tansey is best known for his monochromatic, super-realist paintings.
The complaint states: “In November 2005, at a time that the painting was not on display at the Museum, the painting was placed in Charles’s possession, at his request, to be placed in his home. This transfer of possession was made based on an understanding that Charles would return the painting to the Museum in accordance with the Museum’s rights as a co-owner with Mrs. Cowles.”
The plaintiffs say that Monaco-based art collector Robert Wylde, a defendant, approached the Gagosian Gallery about the painting in 2009, and the gallery arranged a viewing at Charles Cowles’ home.
The Met says Gagosian then sold the painting to co-defendant Safflane Holdings, a Cyprus-based company that collects works by Tansey, for $2.5 million.
“[A]t the time of the purported sale to Defendants, Gagosian was either the primary or exclusive worldwide representative of Mark Tansey … and, therefore, possessed detailed knowledge of Mr. Tansey’s works, including the painting and its ownership by plaintiffs. Despite the plaintiffs’ co-ownership of the painting being a matter of public record, neither Gagosian nor the defendants ever contacted either of the plaintiffs prior to the purported sale of the painting,” the complaint states.
The complaint cites a March 12 article in The New York Times, claiming that “Charles has admitted that he purported to sell Museum property: ‘I didn’t even think about whether the [Museum] owned part of [the painting] or not,’ then ‘one day I saw it on the wall and thought, “Hey, I could use money” and so I decided to sell it.'” (Brackets in complaint.)
The Met says it found out about the sale in 2010, through Jan Cowle’s attorney.
It seeks declaratory judgment ordering Wylde and Safflane to return the painting.
The Met is represented by John Winter with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler.