Denver auction house accused of selling forged painting

Denver auction house accused of selling fake painting

This painting of a Mexico valley, purportedly a work by José María Velasco in 1894, was purchased for $50,000 in 2020. An expert told the buyers the painting is a fake. (Screenshot from LiveAuctioneers.com)

Three Fort Collins residents say they paid a Denver auction house $50,000 for a painting that was purportedly an original by the 19th century Mexican landscape artist José María Velasco, then discovered it wasn’t a Velasco piece and now want their money back.

Matthew Fugate, Shawn Hanson and David O’Sullivan filed a lawsuit against Bruhns Auction Gallery and two previous owners of the painting on June 16 in Denver District Court.

The Northern Colorado residents say they bought the painting, a mountain scene with what appears to be Velasco’s signature next to the year 1894, in December 2020. Their attorney, Colin McIver of Denver’s Zaner Harden Law, said the trio purchased it as an investment.

The plaintiffs say they were told by Bruhns that the painting’s provenance — its chain of ownership, which is used to prove an artwork’s validity — would be included with the sale. But when they called and texted the sellers, Thomas Bruhns and Lawrence Schaffer, on Dec. 13, 2020, they were ignored and were never given the provenance, according to their lawsuit.

Hanson then reached out to Maria Elena Altamirano, who is described in the lawsuit as “the foremost expert in the world regarding the artwork of José María Velasco.” After looking at photos of the painting, Altamirano determined it was not a Velasco, the lawsuit claims. As for that provenance, it “never existed,” according to the three Fort Collins plaintiffs.

“Bruhns knew that the provenance did not exist when Bruhns represented and warranted to (the plaintiffs) that the provenance would be provided to plaintiffs after the sale,” their lawsuit claims.

An attorney for Bruhns Auction Galleries declined to comment on the lawsuit.

According to that lawsuit, Bruhns and Schaffer ignored the buyers’ attempts to discuss a refund, so they hired attorneys and sued instead. The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, deceit based on fraud, theft, negligence and a violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. Antiques by Corky, at 1449 S. Broadway, is also a defendant because it displayed the painting.

Fugate, Hanson and O’Sullivan claim they are entitled to three times what they paid — so, $150,000 — plus attorney fees and court costs, because the sellers acted in bad faith.

As for the painting’s origin, that remains a mystery for now. McIver said in an email that Altamirano could only determine it’s not an original Velasco. An online listing describes it as a “Mexico valley landscape attributed to José M. Velasco 1894” that was bought by a woman in Mexico City in 1939, passed on to a descendant in 1985, then listed for sale online in 2015.

Denver auction house accused of selling fake painting

Denver auction house accused of selling fake painting

This painting of a Mexico valley, purportedly a work by José María Velasco in 1894, was purchased for $50,000 in 2020. An expert told the buyers the painting is a fake. (Screenshot from LiveAuctioneers.com)

Three buyers of what was ostensibly an 1894 work by the Mexican artist José María Velasco say the $50,000 painting is a fake.

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