Seller Wants to Retrieve US$5.7m Rubens Painting Sold to Tech Billionaire Sean Parker at Christie's

The auction house Christie’s is ensnared in a legal dispute over a painting sold to tech billionaire Sean Parker at auction in 2018. The seller of the painting has ‘sought to cancel’ the completed auction sale and the auction house is now ‘seeking to confirm the arbitration award in federal court to conclude the matter’. This incident has raised awareness on the details behind consigning an artwork to an auction house as well as the legal and financial responsibilities of the parties involved. 

The artwork, A Satyr Holding a Basket of Grapes and Quinces with a Nymph, was painted by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens circa 1620. Born in 1577, Rubens spent most of his life in Antwerp and passed away in 1640.

The painting involved in the legal dispute- A Satyr holding a Basket of Grapes and Quinces with a Nymph by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens 

On the right of the painting is a satyr, a half-man, half-goat and follower of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine; on the left is a nymph, a mythical spirit in ancient Greek folklore. Satyrs and nymphs playfully interacting with each other is a common subject of Western paintings. 

The work appeared on the auction stage in New York in April of 2018 with an estimate of US$5-7m. The final price realised was US$5.7m, making the painting the second most expensive work sold in the sale. 

The owner of the work who reneged on the sale was Debra Turner, a collector from California, U.S.A. The buyer, Sean Parker, is Facebook’s first president and founder of Napster. The 40-year-old entrepreneur has a net worth of around US$2.7 billion. 

Sean Parker has a net worth of around US$2.7 billion 

After leaving Facebook, Parker invested in the digital music platform Spotify and has established numerous charitable organisations. The Rubens work was bought under the name of the Parker Foundation,  an organisation founded by Parker which focuses on four areas: Life Sciences, the Arts, Global Public Health, and Civic Engagement. 

The reason behind Turner’s change of mind remains unknown. The court has only revealed details of how she acquired the painting. In 2015, Turner and her long-term partner and property developer Conrad Prebys spent US$3.72m in purchasing the work. 

In 2016, it was said that Turner filed a lawsuit against a board member of Conrad Prebys’ foundation after Prebys’ death. The foundation had transferred US$15m worth of assets onto Prebys’s son Eric Prebys’ hands. It is speculated that Turner’s withdrawal from the sale is linked to the lawsuit. 

Debra Turner (left) and Conrad Prebys were long-term partners

According to documents the court had released, in 2018, Turner consigned the Rubens painting to Christie’s and the auction house gave it a pre-sale estimate of US$5-7m. As the reserve of the work was set at $5m, the hammer price must reach US$5m or more in order for it to sell. Christie’s agreement also stated that the seller could not withdraw the work once the deal was made. 

Parker acquired the painting with a hammer price of US$4.8m at the sale. Christie’s had to pay the remaining US$200,000 to meet the reserve price. Court documents also revealed that Parker had already paid the final price of US$5.7m in full in May 2018 and arrangements were made for the painting to be shipped. 

This incident revealed that auction houses would pay the remaining sum to meet the reserve

Turner claimed that she tried to withdraw the painting before the auction took place yet the sale contract permitted her from doing so. A spokesperson from Christie’s said, ‘Following repeated attempts to settle the matter amicably, the matter [had to be] submitted to arbitration. The arbitrator ruled that Christie’s complied with its contractual obligations and that the successful bidder had lawfully acquired the painting.’

The court also stated that Christie’s must deliver the painting to its rightful owner- the Parker Foundation, and pay the sale proceeds to Turner which is US$4.9m after seller’s commission. Parker’s attorney and as well Parker himself refused to comment on the dispute but the Parker Foundation had written to the judge in support of his decision. 

There is little room for controversy in this case as everything was written in black and white on Christie’s contract. The final attribution highlights the fact that consignors have to fulfill their responsibilities which otherwise would be unfair to buyers.