Park West Sues Fine Art Registry

| April 8, 2010

The $46 million defamation lawsuit over alleged Dali forgeries continues in Federal Court.

Park West Gallery, the company behind the art auctions on the majority of cruise ships, is suing Phoenix-based art company, Fine Art Registry (FAR), for defamation - asking for $46 million in damages. In question is whether FAR made false statements concerning business practices by Park West Galleries resulting in damage to their reputation and a loss of business.

This is a complicated but fascinating case where the outcome will reflect upon the ethics of all cruise ship vendors.

How this Case Came About

Cruise ship art auctions started as simple diversions where passengers could learn about the art world and bid on nicely framed prints to decorate their homes. Up for bid were limited edition prints mostly by up and coming artists.

Most experienced art buyers go to Sotheby's or Christie's art auctions, but as these amateur art auctions exploded on cruise ships the auctioneers soon found passengers ready to buy very expensive pieces as long as they were assured of the authenticity. In general most had no experience buying art, but they felt confident in what they heard the ship auctioneers saying about the prints from Park West.

Soon Park West provided the ship auctioneers with Salvador Dali prints with signatures, saying they were acquired from a reputable source. Many passengers and even crewmembers bought these prints, often at prices in the tens of thousands of dollars. When they took them to art dealers on land, they were told in many cases that they appeared to be worthless in terms of collectability.

Many of these people turned to Fine Art Registry, and as FAR investigated "provenance" (the derivation and history of a specific work of art) of these Dali prints the independent company came to the conclusion they not only were they not as advertised, they appeared to be forgeries. FAR published its conclusions on a special web site it created:

These Dali prints came with certificates of authenticity which FAR discovered were signed by the owner of Park West Gallery, rather than an independent Dali expert - a practice far from regular protocol in the art world. In earlier cases FAR persuaded Park West to refund the money to some buyers, but soon Park West decided to take another approach. They found their own Dali experts and declared all of their prints are authentic and that they had no reason to hide or apologize.

Soon there were several (eight at last count) class action lawsuits filed against Park West Galleries by customers. Then Park West filed a lawsuit against Fine Art Registry for "defamation" asking for $46 million in damages. They also chose to try the case against Fine Art Registry first, before the class action cases, in hopes a resolution there would make the other suits less actionable.

Park West and FAR Go to Court

The defamation jury trial is now underway in Federal District Court in Port Huron, Michigan - home state of Park West Gallery. Originally, it was thought the entire trial would last two weeks, but the opening by Park West alone took three weeks.

Park West just rested their case on Wednesday, April 6th. On April 7th Fine Art Registry opened their rebuttal by bringing in a former crewmember who had been sold a Dali print while working on a Disney cruise ship (Disney and Princess are two cruise lines that do not use Park West Auctions now, Disney just terminated its agreement with them last month without comment - Princess never used Park West). Most other cruise lines use Park West and Royal Caribbean has even been named as a codefendant in at least one class action lawsuit.

FAR witness Debbie Austen testified that she knew the auctioneers on the Disney ship she worked upon personally as friends, but now she feels betrayed that they sold her a fraudulent Dali print. This brings up a key point in the Park West defense; The company claims the auctioneers onboard work for a private contractor, "Plymouth Auctioneering," and so they are not responsible for anything the auctioneers may have said. But Austen says the auctioneers wore name tags that said "Park West." The certificates of authentication of the Dali pieces are also signed by Albert Scaglione, the owner of Park West Gallery.

Next FAR presented a well-known Dali expert, Nicholas De Charmes, who authenticates Dali art pieces professionally for Sotheby's and Christy's auction houses, along with his father who has done the same work professionally since the days when Dali was alive.

In regular video updates about the trial FAR is uploading to its FAR web site daily De Charmes says he was given a series of Dali prints sold to the Sharon Day family at a total cost of $460,000. Upon a thorough attempt to authenticate the pieces he said the signatures are fake, and that the pieces are forgeries.

His experience with Dali's signature comes from training by his father who witnessed it several times, and a videotape he owns showing Dali signing prints. "When Dali signed a series of prints, he always used a single stroke, especially when signing several prints," De Charmes says on the video. The Dali prints sold by Park West (there are apparently thousands) all contain what appears to be an identical "cross signature" requiring four strokes. The distinct similarity of the signatures and the style all point to a signiture unlike anything Dali ever used to sign prints.

Furthermore, De Charmes testified he has never heard of the source from which Park West acquired the Dali prints, which he "never happens in the art world, that such a large number of prints would come from a source that nobody knows."

Tomorrow, FAR will present a handwriting and forgery expert who will examine the signature on several Dali prints supplied by Park West to the cruise lines.

According to the videos on the far web site, Park West's lawyers are objecting continuously. In the end, the decision lies with the jury, all local Michigan residents deciding on the fate of a local employer in a state ravaged by job losses. It seems like an uphill battle for Fine Art Registry, but the courage of their convictions has never faded.

The outcome of this trial will be very interesting, to the art world as well as the cruise world.

See our previous article about Park West Gallery for extensive background on this case.

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