Report: Gagosian Staffer Solicited ‘Cruel and Offensive Offer’ in Lichtenstein Sale

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"Girl in Mirror." (Photo courtesy of Christie's)

Back in January, Gallerist reported that Jan Cowles filed a lawsuit against the Gagosian gallery seeking $14 million for various alleged misdeeds by Mr. Gagosian in the sale of a Roy Lichtenstein work from 1964 entitled Girl in Mirror. The resulting legal wrangling has shed light on private aspects of the operation of Gagosian, some of which are not flattering to the dealer. 

The suit alleges that Ms. Cowles’s son, the art dealer Charles Cowles, never had the authority to sell the painting, and accused Larry Gagosian of misrepresenting the state of the painting when he sold it. As there are various editions of the painting, the complaint alleges that Mr. Gagosian used a condition report for a different edition of Girl in Mirror as proof that the Cowles version was damaged.

The New York Times reported today that in new papers filed Monday, lawyers for Mrs. Cowles revealed some e-mails from Mr. Gagosian that give details about the sale of the painting, like how Mr. Gagosian, in a $2 million sale, earned $1 million commission and the frank language that was used by his staff.

In 2008, Mr. Gagosian went with art dealer Charles Cowles to see the the Lichtenstein work at Mrs. Cowles’s apartment when she wasn’t there. Mr. Cowles was in financial distress and he and Mr. Gagosian talked about potentially selling the painting. Mr. Gagosian, saying he could get $3 million for the painting, took it on consignment, and said he would take a commission of $500,000 if it sold. At Sotheby’s, another version of the painting sold in 2007 for just over $4 million. Here’s Randy Kennedy in The Times:

But by 2009, according to the e-mails, the gallery had offered the painting for considerably less to a collector, Thompson Dean, a managing partner of a private equity firm, telling Mr. Dean that he had an opportunity to get an incredible bargain. “Seller now in terrible straits and needs cash,” said a July e-mail to Mr. Dean from a Gagosian staff member. “Are you interested in making a cruel and offensive offer? Come on, want to try?”

Apparently Mr. Dean was interested in making such an offer and agreed to pay $2 million for the painting, cutting Mr. Gagosian a commission of $1 million, an unusually high rate for a sale on the secondary market.