Last Wednesday, Geoffrey S. Berman, a US attorney for the Southern District of New York, filed a civil lawsuit, known as an interpleader, to begin the search for the owner of a painting by Jean Dubuffet. The painting in question, titled Site avec 5 personnages, was last known to be in the hands of Michel Cohen, a former and now notorious art dealer. It is the hopes of Berman that the interpleader will help get the painting, which is currently in the possession of the FBI, back into the hands of its rightful owner.
Dubuffet (1901-1985) painted Site avec 5 personnages in 1981 and worked in both his home country of France and the United States. A seminal modernist painter and sculptor, he is perhaps best known for coining the term ‘Art Brut,’ which would go on to inspire the Collection de l’art brut, a Swiss museum, dedicated to works by outside artists, or those who have never received formal training. Dubuffet was intrigued by works that would be considered ‘low art’ and the work produced by children and those with mental illnesses. As he developed his own personal artistic vocabulary throughout his career, Dubuffet ‘deskilled’ his techniques to mimic the style of the works that inspired him. Site avec 5 personnages is no different, offering a prime example of his works from later in his career. In 2015, Dubuffet’s work set an artist record in sales at Christie’s New York with a $24.8 million sale and the US Attorney’s Office stated that many paintings similar to Site avec 5 personnages have sold for similar amounts in recent years.
The painting now at the center of the US government’s lawsuit was a part of Dubuffet’s estate until 1993 when it was sold to a collector in Asia. The painting did not resurface much until three years later when it entered the possession of Cohen. Cohen would go on to become the man responsible for swindling associates out of $55 million in 2001 before going on the run. At that time, the painting was left with a New York art dealer in an attempt to sell it; however, that sale never yielded anything. In 2003, Cohen was found and arrested in Brazil but he escaped and disappeared. Some speculated that he was dead until he was found by a documentary maker, who released The $50m Art Swindle, a documentary featuring Cohen, earlier this year. Cohen continues to maintain that he never outright stole any works of art although he sold works that were on loan to him.
In a press release from the US Department of Justice, Berman said: ‘Michel Cohen fled the United States rather than face charges that he used others’ expensive artworks to defraud his numerous victims. With this civil action, we ensure that a valuable painting that he left behind when he fled will end up with the rightful owner.’
As Dubuffet is the last known person to have held the painting, he is listed as the defendant in the suit alongside Sotheby’s Financial Services, Inc., an art financing company that holds a 2002 civil judgement against Cohen for millions of dollars. The case also names a number of ‘John Does’ because the extent to which the case extends is not yet entirely known. The case has been assigned to US district judge Jed S. Rakoff.