Here is a tale of an art theft gone wrong. Unfortunately, things have actually gone quite well for the thief.

In 1981, “Le Marché”, a work by Camille Pissarro, disappeared from the Museé Faure in Aix-les-Bains. Four years later, Sharyl Davis bought the work from J. Adelman Antiques and Art Gallery, a Texas gallery, which had taken it on consignment from Emil Guelton. In 2003, Ms. Davis put the work in Sotheby’s catalog. The Art Loss Register had it noted as missing, and underwent routine art theft procedures, notifying the parties involved. The French authorities were able to identify Guelton as the thief in question, and demanded that the US return the work to France. The United States brought a forfeiture action against Ms. Davis to recover the artwork.

The Government successfully argued that it was entitled to seize the work as merchandise that had been transported into the country illegally. There is no innocent-owner defense available against the claim. Furthermore, where the Government seizes property pursuant to a forfeiture statute, it is entitled to do so without compensating the owner under the takings clause. Davis lost the case and lost an asset valued at $100,000. Because she was not a prevailing party, Ms. Davis was not entitled to recover attorney’s fees either.

Caveat emptor? Barbara Hoffman, representing Ms. Davis, said that her client actually did significant due diligence at the time she bought the print, and even had the work authenticated by an expert. However, because of “the legal parameters of the government’s case,” Ms. Hoffman was not allowed to introduce the evidence in court. Ms. Davis said that she went through a period of collecting art, but most of the artists were alive when she bought their works, so there was never any problem with title before. Meanwhile, Guelton is not being prosecuted. “He’s living on a boat in the South of France and has a pied-à-terre in Paris,” Ms. Hoffman told the New York Times.

Read the article at the New York Times

Read USA v Davis here and the June 3, 2011 decision here