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August 7, 2021

Sothebys, Inc. Fine Art Auctions Miami and Thut et al

On August 3, 2021, Sotheby's filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York against Frédéric Thut, Bettina Von Marnitz Thut, and Fine Art Auctions Miami (FAAM LLC).  Their suit alleges that in October 2016 Bettina Von Marnitz Thut consigned three pieces to the New York auction house, attributed to Swiss artist Diego Giacometti, (the brother of famed sculptor-painter Alberto Giacometti) who died in July 1985.  

Those pieces were:

In furtherance of their sale it is alleged that Bettina Von Marnitz Thut provided Sotheby's with three letters attesting to the objects' provenance; two of which were purportedly written by now-deceased individuals. The pieces were subsequently sold at a Sotheby's private sale on 15 November 2016, bringing a total sum of $1,135,000.

One of the provenance letters is purportedly from Pierre Matisse, the son of French artist Henri Émile Benoît Matisse.  Pierre Matisse was a French-American art dealer prior to his death in 1989. The second provenance letter is purportedly from James Lord, an acclaimed American memoirist and intimate of Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso.  A friend of many Paris-based artists, Lord's biographies provides us with a vivid picture of the artists and artistic movements in Montparnasse, Paris in the vibrant period after World War II.  The final letter is purportedly from French fashion designer, Serge Matta, a friend and enthusiastic collector of works by the artist Diego Giacometti. 

A review of FAAM's 27 October 2014 catalogue shows a provenance for all three artworks prior to their consignment to Sotheby's.  In this catalogue, the pieces are said to have been commissioned from Diego Giacometti for the decoration of Serge Matta's property at Milly la Foret.

On three more occasions in 2017, in October, March, and April, Bettina Von Marnitz Thut went on to consign three additional works attributed to Diego Giacometti to Sotheby's. 

In October, Applique au oiseau à Trois Branches, (ca. 1968); 
in March, Hanging Lantern (n.a.); 
and in April, La Promenade des Amis (ca. 1976). 

For each of these additional pieces Von Marntiz Thut used nearly identical provenance documents.  Like with the previous auction, the popular pieces quickly sold, bringing in a total of $1,171,000 combined.

But by December 2018, one of the unnamed purchasers of the Thut-Sotheby's Giacometti pieces began to doubts their authenticity, and retained the assistance of Denis Vincenot, a French inspector previously with the Service Regional de Police Judiciaire, who is a specialist in organized crime, art theft, and fraud.

Through his dogged pursuit of alleged traffickers in fake metal sculpture, Denis Vincenot is considered by many to be an authority on the bronze sculpture and furniture of Diego Giacometti and led a series of lengthy investigations into fake Giacometti’s in the early 1990s.  Through his efforts, the law enforcement investigator uncovered numerous replicas sold as authentic originals between 1986 and 1992.  Based on his knowledge and lengthy experience, Vincenot judged the Sotheby's buyer’s Giacomettis, purchased in two separate lots, to not be authentic works by the artist Diego Giacometti.  

Having received Vincenot's condemning opinion, the purchaser reached out to Sotheby's, who themselves hired a hand-writing expert to take a second look at the provided letters used to vet the original consignments.  Their expert, in turn came to the conclusion, as the 2021 Sotheby's lawsuit alleges, that the letters provided by Bettina von Marnitz were forgeries, "written by the same hand."

Having come to this conclusion, Sotheby’s in turn notified Frédéric and Bettina von Marnitz Thut of their findings in April 2019 and requested that they or FAAM reminburse them.   Having failed to accomplished this, the New York auction house filed suit in US Federal Court this month. 

But this pending litigation is not the first time FAAM or its owner Frédéric Thut has drawn unwanted attention.

In February 2013 FAAM almost auctioned a 2012 mural by the street artist Banksy depicting an urchin child at a sewing machine assembling a bunting of Union Jack patches.  This artwork, painted on the side wall of a Poundland store in Wood Green, London, was surreptitiously removed that same month, creating immediate outrage within the local community. 

"Slave Labor" by the Artist known as Banksy, 2012

Later, in September 2015 Frédéric Thut approached, André Cardenas, the son of famed Cuban sculptor Agustín Cárdenas to authenticate a substantial grouping of artworks purportedly by his father which Thut claimed had resurfaced in Cuba in the last year and which had been ammassed by the artist's sister-in-law.  André Cardenas had previously managed the authentications of his father's artworks at well-known auction houses including Sotheby's and Christie's.  Agustín Cárdenas died in Havana, Cuba in 2001 and is buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.

After examining the works, André Cardenas questioned the validity of some of the offerings which were lacking in paperwork, as well as the claim that the artist's sister-in-law had been harboring these pieces.   Cardenas recommended that Frédéric Thut not go through with their sale. The questionable pieces were also discredited by members of the artist's family, including the artist's first wife, as well as a number of his longtime friends, both from Cuba and Paris, as well as other individuals, familiar with the artist's oeuvre.

FAAM Catalogue
November 2015
Despite this, in mid November 2015 FAAM decided to publish the entire Agustín Cárdenas collection, including the suspect pieces, in their sales catalogue in advance of their November 30th auction.  On the day of the auction, and despite the very loud objections by André Cardenas, who had arrived with his attorney, FAAM, proceeded to sell the contested pieces.  

Thut was later quoted regarding the Cardenas, pieces saying: