Billionaire Bites Back: Judge All But Tosses Dallas Art Collector’s Lawsuit

The tawdry tale of a multimillion dollar work of art, a widowed patroness, a powerful Mexican billionaire, and the little, red faced museum stuck in the middle of all of it took yet another turn in its four-year-long court battle.

The tawdry tale of a multimillion-dollar work of art, a widowed patroness, a powerful Mexican billionaire, and the little, red-faced museum stuck in the middle of all of it took yet another turn in its four-year-long court battle. Dallas mega-collector Marguerite Hoffman’s lawyers convinced a jury late last year that debt baron David Martinez broke a confidential agreement when he sold at public auction a painting by Mark Rothko, which was sold to him by Hoffman in a hush-hush deal. Now, a judge ruled Friday that Martinez did not violate any agreement.

To recap: Marguerite Hoffman sued David Martinez in 2010 after a big red painting by the abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko turned up on an auction block not long after she sold the piece to Martinez at a discount of $17.6 million (he eventually got $31.4 million for it at auction). What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, said Rothko had been part of the so-called “bequest” to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2005; it hung on the museum walls during the Fast Forward exhibition, which advertised celebrated the donation; and then was sold off the museum’s wall to the billionaire. That raised a lot of questions for people who pay attention to these things. Did it mean that the donation to the DMA was refundable? Were the collectors using the public museum to add market value to their private collections? And about Hoffman: why was she trying to keep the sale quiet? She said it was because she was embarrassed she had to sell the painting after her husband’s death left her cash strapped. But did she also anticipate that the sale would embarrass the museum, and, if so, what did that say about how the collectors understood the revocable nature of the bequest?

Sigh. Tawdry tales in the art world get complicated fast because they quickly embroil themselves in abstract notions of the value of art and unwritten ethical considerations of museums. In the grand scheme of things, this little spat is just that, a spat. After all, there are art collectors and auction houses who have figured out how to turn the entire contemporary art world into an art-schlock industrial complex that functions like an unregulated stock exchange. But Hoffman picked a spat with the wrong billionaire.

Even though this suit is peanuts to Martinez (the guy lives in one of the most expensive apartments in Manhattan and spends his days buying up things like Argentina’s national debt), representatives of the businessman with whom I spoke some months ago told me that he was hell-bent on clearing his name. If Hoffman had hoped that Martinez would be too busy to deal with such a small potatoes claim, she quickly discovered that Martinez was unleashing his legal hounds. She originally sought restoration of $22 million. Even though the jury found Martinez and the art dealers involved with the sale — L&M Arts, owned by art world notables Robert Mnuchin and Dominique Levy — guilty, they reduced the restitution to a to-be-determined amount between $500,000 and $1.2 million. With the recent ruling, not only is Martinez off the hook, but the amount L&M will have to pay Hoffman will likely be $500,000 — and that’s not including legal fees.

And think about how much art for the museum Hoffman could have bought with four years’ worth of legal fees.

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