The high court has ruled that a London art dealer was not negligent for selling an 18th-century Chardin painting as a copy, despite the fact that it turned out to be authentic.

“This must raise wider questions about the operation of the art market,” said the aristocrat who had the painting sold for millions less than what it ended up making just months later.

Vivienne Chow 5 December 2022

This painting, Grace, was created by a famous artist called Jean Baptiste.

The news agency Reuters reported that Simon Dickinson, an art dealer in London, was cleared of negligence charges after a family of aristocrats accused him of pricing their Chardin painting too low when he sold it. Within just a few months, the painting had been resold for millions more than the price that Dickinson had asked for.

The Countess of Wemyss and March, Amanda Feilding, and Vilma Ramsay who are the trustees of the Wemyss Heirlooms Trust said they’re disappointed with the outcome of the trial, however they will now consider their options in light of this judgement.

Le Bénédicité is an oil-on-panel painting in the Louvre Museum’s collection, painted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. There are a number of copies of this painting, four of which it’s believed were done by the artist: one of these, the original prime version, was created in 1740 and given as a gift to King Louis XV; another version was acquired by Catherine II in 1785, who died before she could get it home to Russia and left it in her will for her son Tsar Paul I to bring back with him when he returned from his travels; a third version was given by Dr de la Caze to the Louvre in 1869; and a fourth that has been owned by members of the Wemyss family since 1751, after Francis Charteris wend travelling abroad and brought it back home with him.

The Chardin painting, once owned by Simon Dickinson, senior director at Christie’s and art advisor to the family, was sold in 2014 to Stockholm-based art dealer Verner Amell for £1.15 million (or $1.96 million given historic exchange rate). There was doubt that it had been entirely painted by the French painter because experts were not able to confirm this.

Upon purchasing the painting, the new owner authorized a “deep clean” that revealed Chardin’s signature that had previously been obscured.

Le Bénédicité was back on the market and sold days later in January 2015 to Michel David-Weill, a former chair of Lazard who is known for his illustrious art collection. For this piece, he paid $7.5 million in cash (roughly equivalent to £4.9 million at the time). He even threw in a painting valued at $3 million to seal the deal.

The Wemyss Heirlooms trustees said that Dickinson “handled the sale in an unprofessional and shoddy manner, and in breach of their duty to the principals,” claiming they were owed the profits between the two sales prices.

This means that a judge in the London High Court, Judge Simon Gleeson, has ruled that Dickinson’s valuation of £1.15 million was not negligent. “I think it is fairly clear to me, and I am sure that your lordships would agree with me, that this best-guess solution to a complex pricing problem, in short from an exercise in 1:Many approximated valuations, is nowhere near the most prudent appraisement of the 2002 Radley furniture purchased by Ms Dickinson,” he wrote in his decision

The judge pointed out, in regards to the David-Weill sale, that their prices were “hard to understand on many levels.” And even though this sale did not show any negligence on Dickinson’s part, it was not enough proof to argue that he was negligent in setting the painting’s price at £1 million.

“I accept that the agreed price was an estimate, not a precise price. But without evidence of negligence, I must find for the defendants,” the judge said.

Dickinson said in a statement that the court agreed that he was selling paintings legally by attributing them to “Chardin and studio.”

While acknowledging that the museum’s decision to purchase the contested painting was made “entirely properly, in good faith and for a reasonable price,” the Trustees raised a final concern about their exposure to risk. They questioned whether there are broader implications of purchasing at market value from art dealers who are not subject to public levies or of selling without auction under an arrangement that does not satisfy the Uniformity of Titles Act.