No ‘Finders Keepers,’ Artist Tells Gallery

BROOKLYN (CN) – German artist Franz Erhard Walther claims a Brooklyn gallery owner hijacked “fifty-eight canvas assemblages, photographs and drawings” worth $2 million and refuses to give them back.

     In his federal complaint, Walther says he consigned the art (1. Werksatz) to the John Weber Gallery in New York in 1988. He says he never authorized a sale and never got any money from the works.
     In 2001, when the Weber Gallery entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Walther says, he “immediately took steps to recover the consigned works. He retained lawyers in Germany and the United States, but was unable to recover his property.” But he never gave up title or ownership in them.
     Walther says defendant Keith Johnson, who “controls [codefendant] Urban Architecture,” contacted him in July 2008.
     “Prior to this time, Franz Erhard Walther had never heard of Johnson,” the complaint states.
“In July 2008, Johnson visited Franz Erhard Walther in Fulda, Germany,” according to the complaint. “He described himself as the owner of Urban Architecture, a gallery in New York City. He stated that in 2001 he was at a storage facility where works consigned to the John Weber Gallery were stored and removed fifty-eight elements of ‘1. Werksatz‘, as well as drawings and photographs that comprised the work.
     “Johnson did not explain why he did not contact Franz Erhard Walther sooner to reveal that he was in possession of the work. Johnson was aware that Franz Erhard Walther had lived at the same address for thirty-five years, was listed in ‘Who’s Who,’ could be contacted at the art academy where he was a professor for thirty-five years, and regularly held exhibitions of his works.”
     Walther says Johnson showed him a letter that he “claimed to have faxes to Franz Erhard Walther, but which Franz Erhard Walther never received.”
In the letter, Johnson wrote that he had helped his longtime friend John Weber move “‘several lots of consigned artist’s works from his former 20th Street Gallery storage space … to the safety of my Gallery.’
     “Johnson went on, ‘Lo and behold! What did we discover there but two (2) large grates, filled with about fifty-eight (58) pristine white canvas assemblages … (sic) all with your handwriting all over them.’ Johnson went on to write that they were taken ‘to the safety of my Gallery.’
      “Johnson told Franz Erhard Walther that ‘You can breathe easy now, Herr Walther. … (sic) 1. Werksatz is safe at last!'” (Ellipses and parentheses in complaint.)
     The complaint continues: “Johnson did not explain why he had not tried to get in touch with Franz Erhard Walther between 2001 and 2008. Upon information and belief, during this period of time Johnson and or Urban Architecture was attempting to sell the work.”
     Walther says that during Johnson’s visit, he “repeatedly stated to Johnson that he wanted his work returned to him.”
     In response, he says, “Johnson produced a proposed consignment agreement between Urban Architecture and Franz Erhard Walther for the work,” which Walther refused to sign.
     Walther says he “reiterated his demand that the works be returned, and stated that he would pay for organizing and transporting the work. Johnson stated that he would make arrangements to return the work immediately.”
     But Walther says, “Johnson never returned the work.”
      The artist says he hired another German lawyer, who demanded return of the work: “Demand has repeatedly been made upon Keith Johnson and Urban Architecture to return the work, which demands have been refused. The work has a valuation in excess of $2 million.”
     Walther wants his art back, and damages for conversion, interference with economic advantage and unjust enrichment.
     He is represented by John Sachs Jr.
     Walther, 72, is known for his works of sculpture, installations and conceptual art.

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