No One is Innocent but the Cow, or The Tale of a Callous Son

Meet Cowless Met
In 2009, Monaco-based British collector Robert Wylde purchased Mark Tansey’s “The Innocent Eye Test” for $2.5 million. Little did he know that this transaction would test more than his financial soundness and artistic taste. The painting turned out to be a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met”) from Charles Cowles and his mother Jan Cowles. The painting was displayed at the Met and then temporarily held by the would-be donor. Gagosian Gallery displayed the painting and then did what the Gallery usually does, sold it, allegedly never having been informed that the painting belonged in part to the Met.

Have a Cow: Tax Law meets Museum Law meets Consignment Law
At the time of the fateful sale, the painting was 31% owned by the Met. The Met was promised full ownership sometime in the future and undoubtedly the 31% that were already presented to the Museum were accounted for in the tax returns of the original owner. The remaining 69% are owned by Jan Cowles.  Both Mrs. Cowles and the Met started an action against Wylde, the good faith buyer, in an effort to recover the painting. Conspicuously, neither the man who collected the cool $2.5 million for “the Innocent Eye Test,” Charles Cowles, nor the gallery that should have known better were impleaded in the case. Mr. Cowles was simply quoted as saying “One day I saw it on the wall and thought, ‘Hey, I could use money,’ and so I decided to sell it.”

According to the Met Catalog online, the painting is a “Partial and Promised Gift of Jan Cowles and Charles Cowles, in honor of William S. Lieberman, 1988.” From Lieberman’s NYT obituary, we learn that he was a “legendary museum figure who held top curatorial posts at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” One of Lieberman’s achievements was acquisition of important works, mostly as gifts. Until this cow comes home to the Met, museums better recall their promised gifts, just in case there are other bona fide purchasers ready to provide value in good faith.

For more read Art Info; The Metropolitan Museum of Art v. Safflane Holdings, Ltd., 1:2011cv03143 (May 10, 2011).

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