Longtime Dedalus Foundation board member Dore Ashton recently wrote, but apparently did not send, a strongly worded letter addressed to that organization’s board of directors that criticizes the process by which the organization, established to preserve the artistic legacy of the Abstract-Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, makes authentications—a subject that has recently been the focus of a complex lawsuit and multiple articles. The Observer has obtained that letter, dated Nov. 29, 2011, which also accuses Dedalus of falsely attributing a quote to her in that lawsuit, and is available in full below.
A board member at Dedalus since 1991, Ms. Ashton, a professor at Cooper Union since 1968, is an art historian who has authored numerous books dealing with the New York School artists and was the editor of The Writings of Robert Motherwell (2007).
The lawsuit in question was filed in February, 2011, by the Ireland-based Killala Fine Art Ltd. against the Dedalus Foundation, along with dealer Julian Weissman. It accused the foundation of having authenticated Spanish Elegy (1953), one in a series of Motherwell paintings that all share that name, purchased by Killala in 2007 from dealer Mr. Weissman. Killala wrote that the Dedalus authentication was the basis of its purchase and that it was shocked to discover, two years after the sale, that the foundation had determined the painting to be inauthentic and would not include it in Motherwell’s catalogue raisonné. Dedalus issued a crossclaim against Glafira Rosales, from whom Mr. Weissman had bought the painting, and Mr. Weissman himself. The crossclaim, as The New York Times recently put it, “described … a large forgery conspiracy” and implicated then-director of the now-closed Knoedler Galleries, Ann Freedman, who bought a number of paintings from Ms. Rosales herself. That lawsuit has been settled, but, according to The Times, “Mr. Weissman and Ms. Rosales still maintain through their lawyers that the [Spanish Elegy sold to Killala] is authentic.”
The passage referenced in Ms. Ashton’s letter of Nov. 29, 2011 comes on page 62 of the Dedalus crossclaim:
On February 14, 2008, Dedalus Board member Dore Ashton comes to the Foundation and examines the photographs of the Spanish Elegy paintings and confirms in front of other Catalogue Raisonné Committee Members they are not by Motherwell, and exclaims they are ‘laughable fakes.’
When The Observer read that passage to Ms. Ashton over the phone today, she responded: “That is an outright lie. I was trained at the Fogg Museum at Harvard never to judge anything by a photograph.” She then referred The Observer to her lawyer, Luke Nikas, at the New York firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLC.
Mr. Nikas told The Observer today that it is his understanding that Ms. Ashton wrote the letter in November, and did not send it at that time but now feels it should be made public.
UPDATE, 3/9: Asked for comment, Jack Flam, president and CEO of the Dedalus Foundation, told The Observer that he was present, along with three other people, when Ms. Ashton made the statement referred to in the above passage.
UPDATE, 3/9: In her letter, Ms. Ashton refers to the lawsuit involving Joan Banach, a former assistant to Motherwell who went on to work for Dedalus until she was fired in 2008. Ms. Banach is an artist known to Ms. Ashton. A biography available online indicates that Ms. Ashton wrote a text for a chapbook meant to accompany an exhibition of Ms. Banach’s work that was scheduled to take place Nov. 12, 2009-Jan. 9, 2010 at the Knoedler Gallery Project Space, but apparently did not, according to a cached copy of the Knoedler website, which has since been taken down.
Ms. Banach has also questioned the authentication process at the foundation under Mr. Flam in court documents. She initially filed her suit in March, 2009. Ms. Banach alleged, according to the recent article in The Times, that “Mr. Flam had made unqualified judgments about authenticity and had violated the foundation’s procedures for evaluating paintings. Ms. Banach has brought suit against Dedalus, arguing she was fired because of her complaints about Mr. Flam. (Dedalus denies that.)”
According to a 2010 article in The Art Newspaper, Ms. Banach alleges in her suit that “she was wrongfully ousted by foundation president Jack Flam, ‘a man with overstated expertise in Motherwell’s work,’ and ‘a temper against any who would challenge him.'” That article goes on to say that “Flam orchestrated ‘a malicious campaign’ to remove her in retribution for disagreements over authentication of major Motherwell works of art.”
UPDATED, 3/9: Six of Ms. Banach’s causes of action have since been dismissed, with the exception of employment discrimination, a gender discrimination claim. Mr. Flam said to The Observer, “I believe the gender discrimination claims are without merit.”
Additional reporting by Dan Duray.