Auction houses sell millions of objects every year to much fanfare; jewelry, paintings, books, sports memorabilia, and so on. Given the high stakes and personal connections to these items, it's unsurprising that disputes over ownership often arise. The outcomes are never consistent, as each situation is likely centered around a unique item owned (or not owned) by someone with a story to tell--attempting to prove themselves the rightful owner.
In 2010, several objects connected to Lucille Ball were set to be sold at Heritage Auctions by the widow of Ball’s second husband, Susie Morton. Susie acquired the property when her husband passed away—a Rolls Royce, love letters, photos, and other minor personal effects were among the property. Gary Morton was married to Ball up until her death in 1989, he married Susie a few years later.
Upon hearing the news of this sale, Ball’s daughter from her first marriage to Desi Arnaz, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, contested the sale. She sought to have a number of items from the sale returned to her, including and especially some of her mothers lifetime achievement awards, which she planned to donate to a museum.
Susie Morton filed a suit in response against Luckinbill, claiming that the television star’s daughter forfeited her rights to the property after Lucille Ball’s estate was distributed.
A settlement was reached between Heritage, Ball Luckinbill, and Susie Morton wherein the majority of property could be sold with a small concession. That the house return Lucille Ball’s lifetime achievement awards to her daughter.
The looting of ancient objects has become a more and more common problem in recent years as the western world has woken up to the fact that several of our major museums house art pilfered from the societies that created it. Auction houses are quite careful to only source works that have a complete ownership history, also known as provenance; without gaps or conflicting stories on the life of the object.
But objects can make it deep into the run-up to a sale without being recognized as ‘loot’, sometimes going onto become the headline piece.
Sotheby’s put up for a sale a masterwork of ancient Cambodian sculpture with an estimate range of $2-$3 million. The consignor was a Belgian woman who had acquired the work in 1975 through London auction house Spink & Son. That house was bought by Christie’s in 1993, when the New York Times queried them about records for the 1975 sale, a Spink & Son representative responded by saying the records were unavailable...convenient.
A year after the kerfuffle began, Sotheby’s and their client agreed to return the statue to Cambodia while admitting no wrongdoing. Their earlier argument claimed that both the United States and Cambodian governments were unable to prove that any ownership laws had been broken. It seems that the house and their client followed the letter of the law in this exchange, but even if no laws were broken, the sculpture was evidently looted during the 1970s and there is no escaping that fact.
Any way you legally slice it, this sculpture was taken from its ancient home in Koh Ker, Cambodia. Researchers found exactly where it was pulled from, and for ancient art enjoyers it is a sad sight—made even sadder when you consider that the looting occurred during the bloodiest genocide since the Holocaust. Even if no laws were broken by the house or their client, the statue returning to its rightful home was a win for lovers of history and art the world over.
Sue, maybe the most famous Tyrannosaurus Rex of all time (only behind the nameless Dino who eats that guy off the toilet in Jurassic Park) was dug up by a group called the Black Hills institute in 1990 and she started years worth of legal headaches for everyone involved.
She was found in the side of a hill in South Dakota where after which an ownership dispute began between the institute, the rancher who owned the land where she was found, and the local Sioux Tribe. They did not get far with their arguments before Johnny Law came knocking.
The US Attorney for the state of South Dakota immediately placed the property in the hands of a local college until any wrongdoing and property disputes could be sorted out.
A few years later the feds handed down multiple charges against members of the Black Hills institute, not among them was Sue’s namesake—Sue Hendrickson, who was also present for the dig. Peter Larson, head of the excavation team, and his colleagues received several charges relating to collecting and selling fossils. Larson pleaded not-guilty, and was convicted of two felonies regarding customs violations.
Seven years after her excavation from a cliff in South Dakota, Sue made a trip to the auction block. Sotheby’s put her up on the auction block estimating around $1 million for the lot—bidding shot up to a $7.6 million hammer ($8.36 million with fees). The house offered a novel deal to non-profit institutions allowing them to pay off a successful bid over three years. The winning bidder was the Fields Museum in Chicago, they enlisted a coterie of patrons to help them secure the fossil. McDonald's, Ronald McDonald House Charities, the California State University System, Walt Disney World Resort, as well as private individuals all contributed to aid the museum in bringing Sue to the Windy City.
The main beneficiary of the sale was a Mr. Maurice Williams, a Sioux Indian whose land was where Sue was found by Black Hills. The Institute did pay him an initial $5,000 for the rights to fossils found during excavation, but this deal did not hold up when the time came.
Dinosaurs have become a more and more common occurrence at auction houses in recent history. The big houses have sold millions of dollars worth of them and even fractional platforms are getting in on the fun; Rally offered shares in a Triceratops skull, currently trading at a market cap of $285,000.
Paleontologists argue that these record setting sums make it harder for educational institutions to properly learn from the fossils, but it seems that when push comes to shove non-profits have been able to pull together the means to acquire exceedingly pricey fossils like Sue.
In 2013, Kobe Bryant’s mother, Pamela Bryant, attempted to sell $1.5 million worth of the Lakers star’s memorabilia. His mother had signed a consignment agreement with Goldin Auctions to sell, among other things, Kobe’s high school game-worn jerseys, trophies, and championship rings.
According to Pamela, she had asked Kobe numerous times what to do with these items in her house—a sentiment which many collectors can empathize with. She claimed that her son was uninterested in the objects and began working with Goldin to sell them. The house gave her a $450,000 pre-auction consignment fee which was the start of this commotion.
Upon hearing of the Goldin sale, Kobe’s team filed a cease and desist order against the house to prevent the auction from going forward. The initial filing quoted case law pertaining to when a child’s property can be considered ‘abandoned’ after said child leaves home.
The filing went on to refute much of what Kobe’s mother had stated including that: Pamela was not entitled to sell Kobe's property and Pamela had been requested by Kobe for the memorabilia to be returned to him and his wife. On top of that, the filing states that one lot in the sale, Kobe’s 1999 Nickelodeon Teen Choice award Surfboard, was “last seen by me (Kobe) in my personal residence, I do not know how my mother or Goldin obtained possession of this award, but it was without my permission.”
Kobe and his mother later reached an agreement that allowed 10% of the original lots to be auctioned off, the lots included two high school uniforms and two 2000 Lakers championship rings presented to his parents. Goldin went through with the sale, even though the objects were not quite as enticing as initially hoped.
In 2013, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar began negotiating with Julien’s auctions to consign 400 pieces of memorabilia related to his career. Jerseys, sweatpants, awards, lithographs, among other items—most notably a signed Bruce Lee movie poster for “Game of Death”. The film was never released as Lee died during production, Kareem appears (or would have appeared) in the unreleased film.
The NBA All Star had been negotiating with the house by way of his company ‘KAJ Lifetime Retirement Collection’, who had signed a consignment agreement for hundreds of lots. Kareem and his team claimed that the house was holding his property hostage due to an arbitrator finding that Julien’s could not proceed with the sale of any of the items, which went against a judge’s prior ruling siding with Julien’s.
Two years after the initial suit had began, an arbitrator awarded Julien’s Auctions $907,601.77 plus interest, attorney’s fees, and costs. The arbitrator found that Abdul-Jabbar had entered into a valid consignment agreement and subsequently refused to go forward with the auction OR refund a $300,000 donation to his charity, The Skyhook Foundation, which was part of the initial deal struck with Julien’s.
For 20 years Darlene Lutz was a close friend and art advisor to pop super-star, Madonna. In July of 2017, many years after their relationship ended in a lawsuit, Lutz attempted to consign several pieces of memorabilia relating to the star at an auction house named “Gotta Have Rock and Roll”. Among the items were a hairbrush (with hair), worn clothing, and most importantly—a signed love letter from a jailed Tupac to Madonna.
The sale was immediately halted when Madonna’s team pursued legal action against the house. Madonna argued that her privacy was being violated by the sale of these items that contain her DNA, and therefore should not be available at public auction.
In April of 2018, a judge found in favor of Darlene Lutz stating that all legal disputes between the parties had been settled during their initial 2004 legal spat. And that she was free to sell the property if she so wished.
When the items finally came up for sale in July of 2019 at Gotta Have Rock and Roll they did not perform very well. The Tupac letter did not attract any bids against an estimate range of $200-$300,000, if the site’s data is accurate, the item did not sell. The rest of the lots seemed to perform rather underwhelmingly as well, take a look.
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