Published: February 27, 2008
What was advertised as an “Art Special” turned out to be a lot more than that for the owner of Northfield Auctions, Paul Gorzocoski III. The auctioneer said that he will be “a wee bit” warier the next time he is offered a consignment of art that came out of Europe during the World War II years, but stressed that he exerted due diligence to ascertain that the six neoclassical paintings that were seized from his gallery on October 1, 2007, by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were not stolen.
The six paintings, according to an FBI affidavit, had gone missing from the Bavarian State Painting Collection (BSPC) in the 1940s. A German federal police liaison officer with the German embassy in Washington, D.C., had requested the FBI’s assistance when an official from the BSPC saw images of what he believed were the stolen paintings advertised on Northfield Auctions’ website. The official told the FBI that the paintings had been documented as missing Bavarian property in an international law-enforcement database.
For his part, Gorzocoski said no red flags popped up as he prepared the paintings for auction. Not only did he and his staff check with registries and databases, such as the Art Loss Register, but he said, “My auction contract has a line that says ‘the consignor states that he or she has clear and free title’ to the item. The consignor was as surprised as I was.”
There is one truism that prevails in the industry, however, said the auctioneer. “Whether it was yesterday or decades or centuries ago, once something is determined to have been stolen, there is never clear and free title,” said Gorzocoski.
He said he was shocked when FBI agents entered his auction gallery last October on the day of the auction and seized the six paintings that had been consigned to him by a Florida resident, William Leary.
By Gorzocoski’s account, Leary had told him the paintings had belonged to his late father, a World War II Army veteran, who had kept the paintings †souvenirs of his time in Europe †packed away in a trunk. Leary, the son, was not interested in keeping them, said Gorzocoski, and so consigned them for auction.
The Seventeenth Century paintings, all standard neoclassical genre works with typical Greek or Roman ruins and landscapes, were estimated by the auctioneer to be worth between $10,000 and $20,000 each. “I had phone bidders lined up in Germany and England ready to bid on them,” said Gorzocoski.
Those values are considerably higher than the FBI’s valuation, which in its affidavit filed with the court places a value “in excess of $5,000” on each painting.
Eventually, US District Court judge Rya Zobel will decide whither the artwork. “The complaint is simply an allegation; it will be served on all those who have expressed an ownership interest in the paintings, and notice of forfeiture will be published in a newspaper,” said Christina Sterling, a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s office. “If no one files a claim to the paintings within 30 days of service and publication, we can seek a default judgment. If claims are filed, we need to litigate those claims like any other civil case, with discovery, motions and even trial, if necessary, to determine whether the paintings can be forfeited, and whether there are innocent owners entitled to return of the property. It is difficult to put a time frame on such a case.”
Gorzocoski said the FBI assured him that the seizure of the art and investigation is no recourse to him personally or to his business. He is, however, resigned to the fact that he is out the money and time he spent in preparing and advertising the items for sale.
“Of course, I would have loved to sell them,” he said. “It’s very frustrating, and it puts auctioneers at a certain degree of risk that is not of their own making.”
He is thankful, however, that the paintings were confiscated early on the day they were to be auctioned. “Just think of the time spent and problems I would have had if they had been sold and shipped to an overseas bidder,” said Gorzorcoski. “It would have been a lot more of a snarly mess.”
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