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Coffaro v. Crespo

June 24, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Trager, J.


Philip Coffaro ("plaintiff") commenced this action against David Crespo ("defendant") and Sotheby's, seeking a declaratory judgment that he is the rightful owner of a work of art by Salvador Dali and alleging conversion and slander of title. Plaintiff now moves for partial summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on his claim for a declaratory judgment. For the reasons stated below, plaintiff's motion is granted.



Construing the record in the light most favorable to defendant, the facts are as follows. Plaintiff has operated an art gallery in Mineola, New York for more than twenty years.

Pl.'s Aff. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Aff.") ¶ 3; Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 6. Over the years, plaintiff occasionally conducted business with defendant, an art dealer and member of a Connecticut art gallery. Id. at ¶ 4; Def.'s Aff. Supp. Mot. Dismiss Improper Venue ("Def.'s Venue Aff.") ¶ 2.

On February 11, 1990, plaintiff purchased "Folle Folle Folle Minerva," a mixed media work created by Dali ("the Painting"), from Julien Aime*fn1 for $88,000.*fn2 See Def.'s Aff. Opp'n Mot. Summ. J. ("Def.'s Aff.") ¶ 9. Upon the purchase, Aime provided plaintiff with a handwritten bill of sale, which described the Painting and stated that plaintiff had paid in full. Aime Aff. ¶ 4; Pl.'s Ex. A. According to defendant, plaintiff bought the Painting to give to defendant in order to satisfy a debt that he owed defendant from a previous transaction. Def.'s Aff. ¶ 8. Defendant claims that after purchasing the Painting, plaintiff directed Aime to transfer all rights, title and ownership of it to defendant. Id. at ¶ 10. On February 15, 1990, Aime delivered the Painting to defendant along with a bill of sale, which stated that Aime had "received compensation due for the sale of this piece to Mr. Crespo and do give all rights of ownership to Mr. Crespo . . . ." Def.'s Ex. B; Def.'s Aff. ¶ 11.

On July 15, 1991, defendant agreed to transfer the Painting back to Aime on the condition that Aime sell the artwork within six months. Def.'s Aff. ¶ 12; Def.'s Ex. C. Under their agreement, Aime would return the Painting to defendant if he failed to sell it within the allotted time. Id. at ¶ 13; Def.'s Ex. C. As payment for the Painting, Aime gave defendant two Diego Giacometti lamps and promised to pay an additional $62,500 if and when the Painting was sold. Id. at ¶ 14; Def.'s Ex. C. However, Aime failed to sell the Painting within six months and refused to return it or to pay defendant the remaining debt.

Id. at ¶ 15-16. Defendant had no further contact with Aime and believed that he moved the Painting to South Africa. Id. at ¶ 18.

In 1994, defendant filed for bankruptcy in the District of Connecticut. Id. at ¶ 25; Pl.'s Ex. B. Defendant did not list the Painting as an asset on his bankruptcy schedules nor did he list any claims against Aime or any other parties for conversion or theft. Def.'s Aff. ¶ 27-29. According to defendant, he omitted this information because he lacked the financial means to pursue a legal action and believed that he had lost his opportunity to recover the Painting. Id. at ¶ 30.

Defendant states that in 2006, when plaintiff asked him if he knew of any interesting artwork for an upcoming television auction, he informed plaintiff that Aime was in possession of the Painting but that it belonged to him. Id. at ¶ 19. To prove his ownership, defendant claims that he sent plaintiff the relevant papers documenting his title.*fn3 Id. at ¶ 20. At some point thereafter, plaintiff purchased the Painting from Aime and displayed it in his gallery. Id. at ¶ 21. Defendant claims that when he saw the Painting in plaintiff's gallery, he again informed plaintiff that he was the rightful owner. Id. at ¶ 20.

In November 2007, plaintiff consigned the Painting to Sotheby's for auction, where it was sold for £130,000. Id. at ¶ 23; Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 24. However, before Sotheby's could deliver the sale proceeds to plaintiff, defendant wrote to Sotheby's and asserted a claim of ownership over the Painting. Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 25. As a result, Sotheby's is currently holding the proceeds from the sale of the Painting, pending a judicial determination of ownership.*fn4 Id. at ¶ 26.

Plaintiff's account of the events surrounding the Painting is quite different from defendant's version. Plaintiff states that after he purchased the Painting from Aime in 1991, defendant borrowed it, claiming that he had an interested buyer. Pl.'s Aff. ¶ 7. According to plaintiff, defendant failed to sell the Painting, and when plaintiff asked him to return it, he informed plaintiff that he lent it to Aime. Id. at ¶ 8-9. Plaintiff claims that he did not pursue any action against defendant at that time because he knew that defendant was in financial straits. Id. at ¶ 11.

According to plaintiff, he reacquired the Painting in approximately 2005 when he ran into Aime at an art auction and informed Aime that he was the rightful owner. Plaintiff claims that Aime then agreed to return the Painting for $40,000.*fn5 Id. at ΒΆ 14. Plaintiff further states that defendant visited the gallery ...

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