Art dealer Kenneth Hendel recently found himself in a sticky situation: He was in possession of stolen art. The Florida-based dealer purchased a painting by Picasso after it failed to sell at auction. After the purchase, Wilma “Billie” Tisch, the rightful owner, discovered the painting’s whereabouts and demanded its return. Hendel claims that he is now the rightful owner. The dealer is confident that he will not be forced to return the work because he is working under the assumption that Florida law protects his purchase. He claims that “the piece belongs to the last person who purchased it if it has passed through at least two people since the theft.” This is simply not true.
While it is true that certain aspects of the law in Florida are more forgiving towards current possessors than would be the case under New York law, there are major misconceptions in Hendel’s analysis. There is no law, in any state, that allows someone to gain title over a work after it has passed through a requisite number of exchanges. In fact, a work can be sold by a hundred dealers and yet still belong to an original owner.