It was rumoured to be the world’s most expensive painting, a Gauguin masterpiece bought by the Qatari royal family in a deal that had the art world agog.
Now a High Court battle has revealed the secret dealings behind the sale, as a broker known as “the Mick Jagger of art auctions” sues for the £$10 million commission he says is rightfully his.
Simon de Pury claims there was a “gentleman’s agreement” to pay him handsomely if he secured the sale of Nafea faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry), a study of two Tahitian girls painted by Paul Gauguin in 1892.
The painting was sold by Ruedi Staechelin, a retired Sotheby’s executive from Switzerland whose grandfather had amassed a stunning collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works.
The sale was reported in 2015 as worth $300 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold.
In fact, it was the second highest price ever paid for a work of art, changing hands for the still considerable sum of $210 million following a series of meetings between Mr de Pury and Guy Bennett, the former Christie’s expert who now purchases art on behalf of the Emir of Qatar as director of collections and acquisitions for the gulf state’s museums.
Mr de Pury and Mr Bennett first met to discuss a possible acquisition in 2012, the court heard. Mr de Pury then approached Mr Staechelin, an old schoolfriend, to ask if he had any interest in selling. At that point, Mr Staechelin said he would not sell for less than $250 million, and negotiations stalled.
They resumed in 2014 and the sale went through, but Mr de Pury’s commission never materialised. Mr Staechelin claims Mr de Pury lured him to the table by saying the Qataris were willing to pay $230 million, but this was “dishonesty” as Mr de Pury always knew the buyers would offer $210 million.
Mr Staechelin’s counsel, John Wardell QC, said there had been “a clear breach of fiduciary duty and all commission has been forfeited if any right ever existed”.
Mr de Pury claims that he put the $230 million figure to Mr Bennett, but it was rejected due to the “changing tastes” of the Qataris.
The offer of $10 million in commission was never formalised but that is standard practice in the higher reaches of the art world, according to Jonathan Cohen QC, counsel for Mr de Pury.
“For the avoidance of doubt, there is nothing surprising in these matters being resolved without the use of a written agreement.
“It would be unusual to find some types of contract made orally, but that is not true of the art market, which continues to operate in a gentlemanly manner, based on mutual trust,” Mr Cohen said.
The painting had been in the Staechelin family for more than a century and Mr Staechelin claimed Mr de Pury “pestered” him to sell it to the Qataris.
But Mr de Pury told the court: “I never, ever pester.”
The case continues.