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Osian’s drags Christie’s to US court

Osian’s drags Christie’s to US court

Mumbai: India’s oldest art auction house, Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art Pvt. Ltd, has moved a US court against Christie’s Inc. for allegedly failing to deliver 29 artworks worth at least $800,000 (Rs3.73 crore) although Osian’s had paid for them in full.

Osian’s alleged that the leading art business and fine arts auction house had “threatened" to resell several of the artworks bought by Osian’s and asked it to pay for artworks purchased by a different entity named Bregawn Jersey Ltd.

In an email response to Mint queries, Menaka Kumari Shah, India representative of Christie’s, said on Wednesday: “Christie’s finds this complaint completely meritless; we have been seeking to recover a significant debt from an Osian-related party for more than one year. Christie’s intends to review all of its legal remedies in response to these baseless allegations."

She, however, declined to disclose the name of the Osian-related entity from which Christie’s has been trying to recover money owed.

“Christie’s requested an extension of time to answer the complaint," Nishith Desai Associates, legal counsel representing Osian’s in India, and Mandel Bhandari Llp, legal counsel representing Osian’s in the US, said in an email response to Mint queries.

“We granted them an extension until the end of January 2010. Meanwhile, they have also expressed an interest in settling the case," they said. “Osian’s hopes that Christie’s will agree to fulfil its obligations so that the lawsuit can be settled. But if not, we are prepared to take the lawsuit to its conclusion."

The legal counsel also said that Bregawn and Osian’s were totally separate entities and Osian’s had absolutely no obligation towards any matter concerning Bregawn.

Mint has reviewed the complaint filed by Osian’s with the US district court, southern district of New York, on 20 November.

According to the complaint, Osian’s chief executive, founding chairman and largest stakeholder Neville Tuli bought 29 artworks at five auctions held by Christie’s between September 2007 and September 2008.

Christie’s allowed Osian’s an extended period of time to pay for the artworks and the Indian art auction house made the payment by May 2009, it said.

Osian’s has alleged that the artworks which Christie’s threatened to sell are “unique and irreplacable" and 11 of them are antiques “which were only purchased after Osian’s obtained import licences from the government of India requiring that those pieces be registered with the Archaeological Survey of India as soon as they enter the country".

It further alleged that Christie’s had been “unlawfully retaining Osian’s artworks in order to coerce Osian’s to answer for the debt of a third party".

The art auction house, in its complaint, said: “Christie’s was and is fully aware that Osian’s and Bregawn were separate legal entities and were not liable for each other’s debts."

Osian’s alleged that Chirstie’s “breached" its obligations and has asked for $900,000 as damages.

“This is a very peculiar case and will set the benchmark for art auction houses on how to conduct business. While it comes out of a very specific disagreement, this case will create new norms for transparency," said Ranjit Hoskote, a Mumbai-based art critic and curator.

According to Hoskote, this dispute should be analysed in the larger context of a global financial meltdown.

“There were many aberrations in the global art system generally for unavoidable reasons," he said. “This case invites us to look closely at the relations of mutual trust underlying all auction-based commerce."

On 11 December, Mint reported that the Rs100 crore Osian’s Art Fund, India’s first such fund, floated by Tuli in 2006, was struggling to repay investors.

Many investors claimed that months after the scheme closed, Tuli and his colleagues were still trying to return money. While some of them were yet to receive any payment at all, others had been given less than their entitlement, according to the net asset value (NAV) declared by the fund.

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