Another Old Master Fake Nailed as Sotheby’s Wants Its Money Back

  • Sotheby’s seeks $672,000 refund for a Parmigianino-circle work
  • Contained pigments first used four centuries after artist died

Five years after a painting attributed to the circle of Old Master Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, known as Parmigianino, fetched $842,500 at Sotheby’s Inc., the auction house declared the painting a forgery, made nearly four centuries after the Italian artist died in 1540.

Sotheby’s is seeking to be reimbursed by the seller of “Saint Jerome,” according to a complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday. The seller, Luxembourg resident Lionel de Saint Donat-Pourrieres, received $672,000 from Sotheby’s (net of the buyer’s premium), but “refused to return the proceeds of the sale,” the company said in court papers. The auction house said it is giving the buyer a full refund.

The case is the latest fake to be discovered in the Old Master trade. Last year, Sotheby’s returned $10 million to the buyer of a painting attributed to Frans Hals after it determined the work was a forgery. As with Parmigianino, Hals’s authenticity issue was determined by Orion Analytical LLC, whose founder James Martin is considered a leading forensic scientist and expert in art authentication. 

In December, Sotheby’s acquired Orion Analytical and started a special department for scientific research headed by Martin.

Like the Hals, Saint Jerome was linked to Giuliano Ruffini, who, "according to media reports, is under investigation for selling a considerable number of Old Master Paintings that are considered to be modern forgeries,” Sotheby’s said in the complaint. A 16th century painting of Venus, attributed to German master Lucas Cranach the Elder, was seized by French authorities in March on suspicion that it was fake. It had been sold for 7 million euros ($6.5 million) to the Prince of Liechtenstein in 2013, according to the Art Newspaper.

Sotheby’s contract with the seller says that the company can rescind the sale if the painting turns out to be a counterfeit, according to the court papers. Martin examined pigment samples from 21 different areas of the painting. Each contained “the modern synthetic pigment phthalocyanine green," which was first used in paints in the twentieth century, Sotheby’s said.

De Saint Donat-Pourrieres couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

“While we would have preferred to settle this matter out of court, our consignor has refused to abide by his obligations and we have been left no other option than to pursue legal action,” Sotheby’s said in a statement.

The case is Sotheby’s, Inc., v. de Saint Donat-Pourrieres, 17-cv-00326, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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