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Judge inconclusive on dealer responsibility as South African couple lose case on technicalities

Defendants' story was "reasonably possibly true"

Two Johannesburg art dealers have been acquitted of art fraud in a local court.

Buyers Mr and Mrs E. Paukner claimed they bought a painting from Rodney Wright and Frederick Goss after being told it was a valuable picture by the nineteenth-century Dutch artist Jacob Maris and would have a good resale value in Europe (see The Art Newspaper, No.56, February 1996, p. 25). When they tried to sell it in Holland, they were told it was not what they thought it to be. The accused claimed they had acted in good faith, saying that they had explained that the painting was only “attributed” to Maris and that the buyers were told what this meant and that it did not amount to authentication.

Presiding magistrate Mr J. J. B. Esterhuizen said the versions of the two sides presented to the court were “mutually destructive”. He did not have to believe the version of the defendants, but he was forced to accept that it was “reasonably possibly true”. The defence also argued that the State had failed to bring a local expert to testify that the painting was definitely not by Maris.

While South African dealers may be breathing more easily after this judgment, the magistrate’s reasons for acquittal mean that questions relating to art dealers’ responsibility to buyers, and the weight to be attached to descriptions of art works either by commercial galleries or in auction catalogues (the picture had previously been sold by Stephen Welz & Co., the local associate of Sotheby’s) were not explored, leaving any ambiguities in the law unsettled.