Thursday, April 18, 2024

Years-Long Legal Battle Between Former U.S. Ambassador, French Auction House Leader Continues

New details have emerged in a protracted legal battle between a former US Ambassador to France and the leader of France’s Tajan auction house.

The lawsuit was initially filed in France by the ambassador, Craig Stapleton, against Seward in the Judicial Court of Paris, alleges Rodica Seward, president and chief executive of Tajan and an art collector. The suit claims that Rodica failed to fulfill her obligations under a handshake agreement to select and sell artworks on his behalf, with the two sharing the profits of the sales.

According to legal documents filed in 2022, Seward was entrusted in 2010 with procuring artworks for resale, all of which Stapleton paid for. She never sold the works, the suit claims, and subsequently refused to return the them or disclose their location.

The works were allegedly bought between 2011 and 2016, and were invoiced by Seward via Tajan or a British company called RBS Art Limited, of which she owns a 25 percent stake. The remaining 75 percent is held by a Samoan company called Rocks Capital Limited, owned by the wealth manager Charles de la Baume, who, according to the International Committee of Investigative Journalists, was listed in the Panama Papers and is reportedly under investigation for “aggravated money laundering.” In the 2022 filing, de la Baume is named director of Tajan.

Since then, according to people familiar with case, Seward has returned 23 of the 32 paintings. An appraisal conducted for the remaining nine pieces, among which are works by Richard Aldrich, Katherine Bernhardt, and Farah Atassi, values them at more than $1 million.

The crux of the disagreement lies in the terms of the agreement between Stapleton and Seward. While Stapleton claims that Seward was supposed to sell the artworks and share the profits, Seward contends that she incurred expenses related to storage, framing, and insurance for the artworks, and is now seeking reimbursement. The particulars of the case rest on the common art world practice of handshake deals and verbal agreements in lieu of contracts, which contain clearer, more defined terms.

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