In the new age of liquidated assets, everyone with Fine Art (from Old Masters to contemptible art such as an astronomically priced decomposing pigs head suspended in a tank of formaldehyde) that needs to be sold, should take the Latin dictum caveat vendor to heart. As the nuns of the Convent of Mary, Mother of Our Savior found out the hard way: when de-acquisitioning valuables, always get multiple, independent appraisals before relinquishing your property.
In late 2004, the nuns decided to evaluate for possible sale, a deteriorating old oil painting they had in their chapel. The piece in question eventually turned out to be a lost masterpiece by William A. Bouguereau, Notre-Dame des Anges, which was last shown publicly in this country at the World’s Columbian Exhibition held in Chicago in 1893.
Title: Notre-Dame des Anges, 1889
Artist: William Adolphe Bouguereau, 1925 - 1905
Material: Oil on canvas
Unframed: 90 3/4 x 53 inches
Framed: 108 3/4 x 71 inches
Provennance: The Artists studio, Durand-Ruel, Paris, 1889, Private collection, Chicago 1889, loaned Convent of the St. Josephs Noviate, Md, Private collection, NY, Private collection, Houston, Texas 2008
Not knowing what they had, they hired Mark Lasalle, an art dealer based in Albany, New York, to provide an appraisal of the painting declaring its auction value or fair market value. His initial appraisal of the painting was for $150,000 but he recommended that it be restored by the Williamstown Art Conservation Center of Williamstown, Mass. This the nuns did and after several years, toward the end of the centers restoration work, Lassalle in brought experts from Sotheby’s in New York City, who valued it at an estimated $2.5 million at auction.
According to the nuns, Lassalle did not relay Sotheby’s estimate to them. Instead, he told them that he’d found a private collector from Santa Fe, New Mexico named Mark Zaplin, who would be willing to pay them $350,000 for it.
When the nuns responded that they thought it might fetch a higher price at auction, Lasalle and his straw buyer Zaplin, who was in fact a well known, if not reputable art dealer, came back with an offer of $450,000 which the nuns eventually accepted in August of 2006.
After Zaplin flipped it for about $2.5 million, the painting ultimately sold through an art dealer in Dallas, Texas through an art dealer named Brian Roughton for reportedly over $5 million.
None would have been the wiser but for another art dealer, Paul Dumont, who originally suggested to Lassalle that he use Zaplin as the money man in the scheme and was then stiffed on his commission from Messers Lassalle and Zaplin. Dumont, feeling cheated and motivated by a residual piety, made the nuns aware of the scam through an intermediary known to them and recommended a New York City attorney, Bruce Goldstone, whom they retained and he, in turn filed suit on their behalf aginst Messers Lasalle and Zaplin in September of 2008.
Sotheby's might find themselves in the crosshairs of an investigation as accomplices after the fact as well. Furthermore, according to Sotheby's stated policy, appraisals cannot be made solely to third parties, in order to avoid situations like this one, where the actual owner remains ignorant of the accurate appraised value of the work.
As the case winds its way to a civil court trial, it is possible that criminal charges against Messers Lassalle and Zaplin could emerge, as there was a criminal fraud involved, as well as wire fraud (which is a federal offense).