The New York Supreme Court has ordered a trio of London galleries to return a $1.2 million Marc Chagall painting to Rick Silver, a Pennsylvania collector, one of the victims of disgraced Manhattan dealer Ezra Chowaiki , who pleaded guilty in 2018 to defrauding his clients.
Silver bought the painting Bouquet of wallflowers (1971) from Chowaiki, who sold it on behalf of a customer in 2015. Chowaiki handed over only $900,000 of the $1.2 million purchase price to the client, according to Silver’s attorneys.
The deal went awry, however, when Chowaiki convinced Silver to return the work to him, using the painting as collateral for an $800,000 loan Chowaiki had taken out for his gallery. In 2017, Chowaiki sold a 75 percent stake to London dealers Hugh Gibson, Alon Zakaim and David Breuer-Weil for $1 million, Silver’s lawyers say.
The dealers got the painting and a certificate of ownership, but Silver never saw a dime, prompting him to take legal action. The FBI publicly lists the Chagall in the National Stolen Art Database.
Silver was represented in the case by Judd Grossman, an attorney who has worked with at least six of Chowaiki’s victims, while the former dealer pursued both federal criminal forfeiture proceedings after his plea guilty and federal bankruptcy proceedings for his gallery of the same name. Chowaiki was eventually sentenced to 18 months behind bars.
Judge Joel M. Cohen, a New York County Supreme Court judge, found during oral pleadings in February that the London galleries had failed to timely file their claim to the painting in the previous cases related to Chowaiki.
The long-running dispute over the Chagall has made its way through the legal system since 2019, making the summary judgment in Silver’s favor “a big win,” the company wrote on its website.
The London galleries had long maintained that paying for the work had earned them a good title. But Silver’s legal team argued that email correspondence revealed that the galleries were suspicious of Chowaiki and his business practices. “I will no longer accept this level of incompetence,” Zakaim wrote at one point. “I can’t sit down” [and] ruined my reputation by this nonsense.”
The galleries should also have known that Chowaiki had used the painting as collateral for a loan, the suit claimed. “There couldn’t have been a more glaring red flag,” Grossman wrote in a motion for summary judgment in late 2019.
The latest ruling upholds a lower court’s order in favor of Silver calling for the painting’s return, which was granted in 2019.
“Defendants cannot, in my view, dispute the title of plaintiff on the artwork in this case,” Judge Cohen said during pleadings in the Supreme Court case. “Those rights were granted in full in the federal case. † † and exclude the arguments of the defendants in this case.”
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