Collector Myron Kaplan paid US$57,500 for Abstraction #6 by Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) at Sotheby’s on November 20, 1997. The work was estimated at US$15,000/20,000, and the provenance in the catalogue noted that it was “acquired directly from the artist.”
In May 2016—almost 20 years after he bought it—Kaplan received a letter from the General Services Administration (GSA) stating that the painting was produced under the New Deal and remains the property of the U.S. government. The letter noted, “the last possessor of the painting [indicated] that the painting was retrieved approximately 50 years ago from the Port Richmond High School in Staten Island. The painting was discarded due to a renovation of the school building and recovered by their [sic] relation, a school staff member.”
Reinhardt was involved with the federal art program administered by the Works Progress Administration. He worked in the Easel Division of the Federal Art Project. The GSA claims that all works created under the various New Deal art projects are government property, and when the works are found, the GSA demands their return.
Kaplan’s attorney, Debra A. Mayer, contacted Sotheby’s and the GSA in an attempt to confirm the painting’s provenance from before the auction. Sotheby’s refused to provide any information about the consignor without a subpoena; the GSA also refused to provide Mayer with any information, she states in court papers. The GSA is demanding immediate possession and has threatened to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney for criminal prosecution, Mayer claims.
Mayer, on behalf of Kaplan, has filed a motion in court seeking a subpoena to compel Sotheby’s to provide complete records of the consignment in 1997 and all documents provided by Sotheby’s to the GSA “pursuant to its December 2015 subpoena to Sotheby’s concerning this matter.”