Dia Art Center Founders Sue to Block Sotheby’s Auction

The founders of New York’s Dia Art Foundation sued the organization and Sotheby’s to block the auctioning of artworks they say were donated with the intention of keeping them available to the public.

Heiner Friedrich and his ex-wife, Fariha Friedrich, who started the foundation with art historian Helen Winkler, filed the suit yesterday in state Supreme Court in Manhattan.

The sales, scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s on Nov. 13 and 14, include works by Barnett Newman, Cy Twombly and John Chamberlain that the plaintiffs said they donated or loaned to Dia in the 1970s and 1980.

“Dia’s proposed auction of the subject works would remove the works from public access and viewing in direct contravention of Dia’s entire intent and purpose and of plaintiffs’ arrangements and understandings with Dia,” the Friedrichs said in the complaint.

Heiner Friedrich said he started the foundation in 1974 to help artists execute “visionary projects” that might not otherwise be completed because of their size and scope, and to make them available to the public.

Dia was intended “to alleviate the artists’ dependency on the commercial art market and to make works permanently available for public access and viewing,” according to the complaint.

Former Factory

Dia supports artists with exhibition space and funds for long-term projects. The foundation in 2003 opened a 300,000-square-foot museum in a former factory in Beacon, New York, with works by artists of the 1960s and 1970s, including Chamberlain, Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd.

Heiner Friedrich hasn’t been on the foundation’s board since 1985, and his ex-wife is a trustee emeritus, according to the complaint. Heiner Friedrich said he met with Dia’s current director, Philippe Vergne, in June and was told that the foundation was considering a private sale of some of its original collection to fund other works.

Friedrich “strongly objected” to the sales, which would contradict the foundation’s purpose, and he and his ex-wife hoped that the pieces would be sold to another museum, according to the complaint. The Friedrichs said they later learned that the foundation rejected a museum’s offer to buy the works.

“Such private sales would comprise a betrayal of the Dia founders’ intent in establishing Dia and of the artists’ trust,” the Friedrichs said in the complaint.

Two Auctions

The works are scheduled to be sold during two auctions of contemporary art to be held at Sotheby’s in New York next week, on the evening of Nov. 13 and the following day. Other works being sold include artwork from the collection of billionaire hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Cohen regularly buys and sells art at auctions, and his works by Twombley, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Brice Marden and Joan Mitchell have been estimated at as much as $85 million, or about 20 percent of the $424.6 million Nov. 13 auction.

Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors LP agreed to plead guilty to securities-fraud and wire-fraud charges, the government said Nov. 4. SAC, which was indicted earlier this year, was accused of reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal profit through insider trade by employees dating to 1999.

Sotheby’s and the foundation didn’t respond to messages seeking comment on the suit.

The Friedrichs asked for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction stopping the sale, as well as a declaration that the auction violates the agreement between the foundation and its founders.

The case is Friedrich v. Dia Art Foundation, 160379/2013, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).

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