Whose painting is it anyway? Collector sues the Gagosian

When British art collector Robert Wylde bought Mark Tansey's 1981 painting The Innocent Eye Test in 2009, he thought that he was investing in a clever work of satire which showed up the farce-like dealings of the art world. He certainly did not think he would become part of the farce himself.

Wylde, who is based in Monaco, is suing New York's Gagosian Gallery for several million dollars, claiming that the gallery sold him the painting without telling him that it was part-owned by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tansey's black and white work shows a cow being shown a portrait of another cow, a mocking glance at the insider nature of the art world, to which Wylde himself now believes he has fallen foul.

The businessman's lawsuit, which was filed in Manhattan's federal US District Court for the Southern District of New York earlier this year, alleges that he was not told that the Met owned 31 per cent of the painting when he purchased it. According to the suit, a Gagosian salesman took Wylde to the Manhattan apartment of art dealer Charles Cowles, who believed he had ownership of the work.

Wylde paid $2.5m (£1.55m) for the painting, before the Gagosian Gallery contacted him last year to tell him that the Met still had partial ownership rights. A Gagosian spokesperson denied responsibility, claiming the gallery had been told by Mr Cowles that he had ownership of the painting. The spokesperson added: "Charles Cowles represented that he had clear title to the painting, which was viewed for sale in his apartment and the gallery acted in good faith at all times in selling the painting."

When Mr Cowles was contacted by The New York Times late last week, he said he considered the "whole dispute his mistake". He said: "I didn't even think about whether the Met owned part of it or not. And one day I saw it on the wall and thought: 'Hey, I could use the money', and so I decided to sell it. And now it's a big mess." The suit also alleges the Gagosian sold Wylde a Richard Prince painting for $2.2m (£1.36m) in 2009 and then cancelled the sale after it received a higher offer from a rival purchaser. While this is common in art deals, the two allegations are a rare glimpse into the dealings of one of the world's most secretive chain of galleries, owned by billionaire Larry Gagosian. A Gagosian spokesperson said the gallery would "vigorously defend itself".

Californian Tansey is as famous for elaborate, monochromatic, postmodern works as he is for his ironic sense of humour.

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