The opinion of the court was delivered by: SPRIZZO
Plaintiff, Robert Owen Lehman, commenced this diversity action against his former wife, Aki Eveline Lehman, to recover possession or, in the alternative, the value of forty-three objects of art that he claims to own.
His pleadings allege causes of action in replevin and conversion, and for breach of a bailment agreement.
The action was tried before this Court, and the parties filed post-trial memoranda. The Court heard oral argument on November 28, 1983; thereafter, the parties submitted additional correspondence. Having reviewed the submissions of both parties, the Court renders the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.
1. Mr. and Mrs. Lehman were married in April 1964. They physically separated in late 1971. At that time, the Lehmans were living in their London home (the "White House") with their two young children. At the time of the Lehman's separation, the items of art at issue in this proceeding were all in the White House.
2. When the parties separated, Mrs. Lehman retained the forty-three items of art in the White House.
Shortly thereafter, in February 1972, she and the children moved to a house in Paris, France (the "Paris House") and took the artwork with them.
3. In October 1974, the Lehmans entered into a separation agreement which, inter alia, provided for alimony and support for Mrs. Lehman and set forth who was entitled to which items of art.
That agreement, however, specifically stated that, in the event the Lehmans were not divorced by June 30, 1976, its terms would not take effect and the rights of the parties would revert to the status quo existing prior to the execution of the agreement.
4. Although Mr. Lehman commenced a divorce action in New York state court, a judgment of divorce was not obtained prior to June 30, 1976.
As a result, Mrs. Lehman became entitled to an independent determination of her alimony and support, and ownership of the artwork reverted to the status existing prior to the execution of the separation agreement.
5. From July 1976 until January 1980, the parties intermittently negotiated and litigated over the issues of alimony and support. On several occasions during this period, Mr. Lehman, either personally or through his attorneys, demanded that the artwork be returned to him. On each occasion, counsel mutually decided to wait to resolve issues concerning the artwork until after they settled the alimony and support issues.
6. Each of the parties claims to own all forty-three items of art. Mr. Lehman contends that, with one exception, he acquired ownership of the items by either purchasing them himself or receiving them as gifts from his father.
Mrs. Lehman claims that she and/or her children acquired ownership of the items in a variety of ways -- by purchasing them herself with her own or joint funds, by her husband's purchase of them with joint funds, and by gift from her husband or her father-in-law.
7. Mrs. Lehman's claim of ownership over all of the artwork is inconsistent with the position she took earlier in this litigation in responding to one of plaintiff's interrogatories -- when she asserted ownership over only eight items.
It is also inconsistent with her conduct prior to the commencement of this litigation. First, between July 1976 and December 1979, Mr. Lehman or his attorneys made several requests that Mrs. Lehman return the artwork to her husband. At no time did she respond to those requests by contesting her husband's claim to the property and asserting instead that she was the proper owner. Second, when questioned in the state matrimonial proceeding regarding the artwork, she also did not claim to own all forty-three items.
8. Since Mrs. Lehman's interrogatory response only asserted ownership of eight items, and in light of her previous failure to claim ownership over all of the artwork, the Court finds that plaintiff, Robert Lehman, is the exclusive owner of thirty-five of the forty-three items. In so finding, the Court primarily relies upon Mrs. Lehman's response to plaintiff's interrogatory; however, it also relies upon her overall lack of credibility in explaining how she came to own those thirty-five items.
9. The remaining eight items are those enumerated in Mrs. Lehman's interrogatory response: # 2 -- Costa Rican stone figure; # 3 -- Indian stone statue; # 6 -- Byzantine tapestry Flemish; # 7 -- Benin bronze cock; # 12 -- Ashanti carved wood door; # 37 -- one Shepard drawing;
# 40 -- model of steam engine; and ...