On Monday night, as actor Alec Baldwin was celebrating the arrival into the world of his new son Leonardo, a high-powered legal team acting on Baldwin’s behalf were simultaneously filing legal papers claiming that he had been cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars by the legendary 1980s New York art dealer Mary Boone.
In an extraordinary legal filing, and one which sheds a revealing light on the high-stakes world of celebrity art buying culture, Baldwin’s lawyer John Hueston, a former federal prosecutor who led the Enron task force prosecutions of Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling (and who also, intriguingly, brought several successful suits on behalf of the billionaire Bill Koch, arising out of counterfeit wine sold to him by various individuals and auction houses) alleged that Boone “offered to obtain a famous piece of art that Mr. Baldwin was passionate about owning, in exchange for $190,000, but instead, obtained and delivered to Mr. Baldwin a copy that Ms. Boone had intentionally engineered to appear genuine.”
Exact numbers are not mentioned in the suit. However, Baldwin is seeking “exemplary damages.”
The court papers, seen by The Daily Beast, allege that “Ms Boone also intentionally, deceptively and falsely stamped the “Mary Boone Gallery Inventory Number” 7449 on the back of the painting delivered to Mr. Baldwin—which was the very same “Mary Boone Gallery Inventory Number” that had been assigned to Mr. Bleckner’s 1996 Sea and Mirror.”
Baldwin alleges in the filing that he received an email from the artist “admitting” the fraud and saying, “I’m so sorry about all of this. I feel so bad. What can I do to make this up to you?”
According to Baldwin’s suit, Boone told him in a February 2010 email that the owners of Sea and Mirror lived in California and were asking $175,000.
The email included a “flowery description” of the work and a brief accounting of its history that “touted the painting’s provenance,” Baldwin said in the complaint.
According to the filing, Boone admitted during a telephone call that she had in fact intentionally sold Baldwin a ‘copy’ of the painting.
Amazingly, Baldwin then told Boone to purchase the “actual” painting, but according to the complaint, “Ms. Boone has never obtained or delivered ‘Sea and Mirror’ to Mr. Baldwin.”
However, art world insiders and experts have been quick to pour undiluted scorn on Baldwin’s suit.
The actor is not claiming that the painting Boone sourced for him (for a paltry fee of $15,000) is a “fake” in the way most of us would understand that word.
The painting Baldwin received is indeed from the hand of Ross Bleckner.
It is called Sea and Mirror.
But Bleckner paints multiple “versions” of the same works, and Baldwin is alleging that he was ripped off because he was sold a later iteration of the work, not the 1996 “original” that he thought he was buying.
It is not inconceivable that a clever lawyer may well manage to convince a jury of the validity of Baldwin’s case—but the action has made him a laughing stock in the art world, singling him out as a classic know-nothing celebrity art buyer.
One art world source, who did not want to be named, drew comparisons to an episode in which Baldwin paid $95,000 for a Pat Steir at a charity auction without realizing the artist was seated next to him, as reported by Art News.
The same source said they had heard that Baldwin subsequently attempted to go back to Steir and try to “swap” the painting for something he liked more. (The Daily Beast has approached Baldwin’s representatives for comment, and will add to the story if they respond to our query.)
The case has done nothing to enhance the reputation of your average celebrity art punter. “Most of these people don’t even know how to tie their own shoelaces,” says former London gallerist Alex Proud. “They are gullible because they live in such isolation from the real world. They just go from first class lounge to agent to having someone hold their dick for them while they take a piss.”
Detmar Blow, one of the few other gallerists prepared to comment on the record, told The Daily Beast, “Mary Boone is a distinguished contemporary art dealer. I recall that Michael Caine said in his biography that actors’ houses are full of photos of themselves. Directors have Picasso, Matisse, Bacon and Freud on their walls. ‘Celebrities,’ and especially, ‘actors’ are rarely serious collectors of contemporary art.”
To attempt to differentiate between different versions of a Bleckner, experts within the art world say, is like arguing one of Monet’s cathedral façades is more valuable than another because it was painted first.
As Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian, Bleckner’s work “glories in repetition,” adding, “To love Bleckner you have to love all his paintings. It makes no sense to separate off one of his works and adore it alone. It’s like saying, ‘I hate most of Warhol’s work but I really love his orange car crash paintings—only the orange ones, mind.’”
A New York City art world source with knowledge of the situation said, “Some celebrities have been very difficult clients. They can be very demanding. You can often find they try to renegotiate after the fact. They are used to being able to do things on their own terms in other spheres of their life, and they want to do things on their own terms in the art world too. They don’t necessarily want to play by the same rules as everyone else.”
The source added that New York City art world chatter indicated that this was “not the first time” that Baldwin had “made a mistake” and “misunderstood the art world and how it works.”
Ted Poretz, attorney to Mary Boone said in a statement: “Mr. Baldwin’s effort to intimidate Ms. Boone does not change the fact that his claims are false. Ms. Boone has no interest in misleading clients and we are confident that this frivolous and vindictive lawsuit will be dismissed.
“Regardless of Mr. Baldwin’s unseemly reaction to his own misunderstanding, Ms. Boone offered him a full refund and took every step to handle this in a professional manner. Sadly, Mr. Baldwin’s decision to continue this personal attack is not surprising given his history of lashing out against anyone he believes is beneath him.”