The disputed Frans Hals painting, 'Portrait of a Gentleman'.

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Sotheby’s first filed its claim in London's High Court against Weiss and Fairlight Art Ventures in February 2017.

Weiss settled out of court in April but on December 11 a High Court judgment handed down by Justice Robin Knowles determined Fairlight was liable to Sotheby’s.

The judge did not determine whether the picture in question, Portrait of a Gentleman, is by Frans Hals or not.

Weiss bought the picture in 2010 with backing from Fairlight. It was then sold, through Sotheby’s in 2011, to a US buyer in a $10.75m private deal.

Doubts raised 

In 2016, after doubts were raised about the picture, Sotheby’s reimbursed the US buyer the cost of the transaction and later sought redress from the sellers. In 2017 the auction house said it had completed “in-depth technical analysis which established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery” with traces of a green pigment invented in the 20th century found in the picture.

Sotheby’s had been due to begin a trial with Weiss on April 1, 2019 but the parties settled out of court with Weiss paying $4.2m to Sotheby’s without any admission of liability. 

Weiss has always denied the claim that the picture was fake and in a statement issued following the April settlement, he said he “remains convinced of the authenticity of the work based on his own expert's independent scientific testing to that effect, which would have been produced in evidence at the trial had it proceeded and the overwhelming support of connoisseurs since the discovery of the work in 2010”.

Sotheby’s action against Fairlight did proceed to court.

A Sotheby's statement said: “We were glad to see our position completely vindicated by the court... Fairlight is liable to Sotheby’s for failing to return the full purchase price of the painting, and has been ordered to pay costs and interest, subject only to an adjustment to reflect an early settlement reached with Mark Weiss.”

Good faith

A spokesman for Fairlight Art Ventures said: “The painting at the centre of this judgment was bought and sold in good faith, and at the time of its discovery was celebrated as an important late portrait by the Dutch Golden Age artist Frans Hals. The picture was labelled a 'National Treasure' by the French Government, which delayed its export from France so that the Louvre could try to raise the funds to buy it. It was on this basis that both Fairlight Art Ventures and Sotheby's were excited to handle the painting. 

“When the story broke that the painting might not be an original work, Fairlight Art Ventures felt Sotheby's refused to accept its own share of responsibility in the matter, or to balance the interests of its buying and selling clients, and it was on this principle that Fairlight went all the way to trial.

“Fairlight Art Ventures felt that the facts of the complex case and the relevant law argued against its legal liability, and is disappointed that the judge did not recognise the merits of its case.”

The Hals painting is thought to have been previously owned by Frenchman Giulano Ruffini who has been linked to a number of paintings that have had their attribution questioned. 

They include a picture sold as a Cranach to the Prince of Liechtenstein in 2013 and an oil attributed to Parmigianino, sold at Sotheby’s in 2012.

“Intrinsic qualities”

Justice Knowles said: “Whether by Frans Hals or not, it is to be hoped that its intrinsic qualities will not be ignored, and that it may be enjoyed for what it is, a fine painting.”