Sotheby’s is claiming that one of their consignors sold several Diego Giacometti works through the auction house using allegedly questionable provenance documents. The sales took place in 2016 and 2017.
On August 3, Sotheby’s filed a lawsuit in New York’s Southern District Court against Bettina von Marnitz Thut, her husband Frederic Thut, and Fine Art Miami (FAAM), their Florida-based auction house. The suit alleges that the Thuts consigned fake Giacometti works.
In October 2016, von Marnitz Thut consigned a number of items to Sotheby’s. The lawsuit only details three by Diego Giacometti: Console à double plateaux, modèle à Grenouilles (ca. 1975), Table-feuilles: modèle de salle à manger aux Grenouilles (1980), and Lanterne aux feuilles et oiseau (ca. 1975). The works are a console, a table, and a lantern, respectively, and they were sold in a private sale on November 15, 2016, for more than a collected $1 million. Von Marnitz Thut made $710,800 from the sale.
Then, in October 2017, von Marnitz Thut consigned three more works: Applique au oiseau à Trois Branches (A Pair), ca. 1968; in March, Hanging Lantern (n.d.); and in April, La Promenade des Amis (ca. 1976). According to Sotheby’s lawsuit, von Marnitz Thut used nearly identical provenance documents each time and made nearly $1 million from the sale of these works.
The lawsuit did not name the buyer of these pieces. At the end of 2018, that buyer began suspect the work was a forgery, the suit claims. The buyer enlisted the help of Denis Vincenot, a French inspector who had led an investigation into fake works by Diego Giacometti in the early 1990s. Vincenot found that between 65–80 percent of the artist’s furniture and sculpture works put up to auction between 1986 and the time of the early ’90s investigation were fakes, according to a report by the Art Newspaper in 1992.
Vincenot judged the buyer’s Giacomettis, purchased in two separate lots, to be inauthentic. The buyer informed Sotheby’s of this development, which prompted the auction house to hire a handwriting expert to look over the provenance documents, hoping to persuade Vincenot that he had made the wrong judgment.
Neither Sotheby’s nor FAAM immediately responded to requests for comment.
According to the suit, the documents provided by Von Marnitz Thut were from New York art dealer Pierre Matisse, writer James Lord, and Serge Matta, all friends of the artist. In a catalogue published by FAAM in 2014, all the works consigned to Sotheby’s were described as having been bought by Matta, who had acquired the works from Pierre Matisse. The handwriting expert that Sotheby’s employed found that the same person authored all the papers, potentially putting the documents’ authenticity in question.
In April 2019, Sotheby’s notified the Thuts that the house had determined the work to be inauthentic and demanded that they return money made off the sales. At the same time, Sotheby’s refunded the buyers of the allegedly inauthentic works. Sotheby’s claims that the Thuts have not returned any of the money.
In the lawsuit, Sotheby’s alleges that the Thuts had put the works up for sale at FAAM and acted as a broker for another buyer before buying the works themselves, thereby concealing previous ownership of the works along with their origins. Sotheby’s is now pursuing nearly $7 million in damages, plus legal fees and “such other or further relief as the Court deems just and proper.”