There is no doubt that the art auction world is a high stakes one. This is not a surprise, especially considering the selling price of pieces in recent auctions. In a March 2018 auction, Pablo Picasso’s “La Dormeuse” was sold at Phillips’s for £41.9m, while Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold in November 2017 for a record-shattering $450m (£341m). The buyer’s ease of mind – and credibility of the painting’s source – is of the utmost importance in transactions like these. So, what happens when the authenticity of an art work is questioned?   

Slander of title, or a false denial of a work’s authenticity, can result in serious consequences. Incorrectly lowering the reputation of an artwork can leave you liable for damages. This principle is famously exemplified in a 1929 United States case that set a precedent for slander of title.   

The case regarded a supposed da Vinci: “La Belle Ferronniere.” The painting belonged to Andree Hahn, a gift from her aunt whose grandfather bought it in 1847. Hahn arranged to sell the painting to the Kansas City Art Institute for $250,000, which is about $3,600,000 today. However, this sale didn’t go as smoothly as she would have hoped.   

Hearing about the sale, Sir Joseph Duveen, a highly influential art dealer, declared that this da Vinci was a fake. He insisted the original piece was currently in the Louvre, and da Vinci never made multiples of his own pieces.  

The problem was, Duveen hadn’t seen Hahn’s “La Belle Ferronniere” before making this accusation. His slander cost Hahn the sale – as the Kansas City Art Institute rescinded their offer upon this doubt, costing Hahn a great sum of money.   

In retaliation, Hahn took Duveen to court over the slander of title. This proved to be a lengthy legal process, and one that was very widely reported. In the end, the jury could not unanimously decide if the painting was real or not – and, in turn, prove whether Duveen’s comments were false. Duveen eventually paid Hahn a $60,000 settlement plus court costs to avoid going to retrial.   

This case has impacted how we look at slander of title in today’s art world. Since Hahn v Duveen, experts have remained cautious about offering statements on a work’s authenticity. One slip could find them entangled in lengthy slander or disparagement litigation.   

Interestingly, a 1993 examination proved “La Belle Ferronniere” to not be an original da Vinci. It still proved to be valuable though, selling for $1.5 million at a 2010 Sotheby’s auction.  

 Regardless of the piece’s authenticity, Hahn v Duveen set a precedent for how vital refraining from wrongly attacking the reputation of an artwork can be. Reputation protection should be at the forefront of one’s mind in any art transaction. If not, the cost may be great.  

 Daniel Taylor of Taylor Hampton solicitors (experts at defamation and reputation management.)