U.S. Attorney Announces Civil Action To Resolve Ownership Of Jean Dubuffet Painting Formerly In Possession Of Indicted Art Dealer Michel Cohen

Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that the United States filed a civil lawsuit to resolve potential claims to “Site avec 5 personnages” (the “Painting”), an acrylic work on canvas by renowned 20th century-artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) that was last known to be the personal property of Michel Cohen (“Cohen”), a former art dealer who has been under indictment for wire and mail fraud since 2003.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) came into the possession of the Painting during the course of its investigation into Cohen, who, according to the indictment against him previously filed in this District, induced numerous national and international art galleries, collectors, and investors to consign to him expensive works of art and to give him large sums of money as part of fraudulent transactions.  The civil action filed today, known as an interpleader, seeks to allow the Government to divest itself of the Painting in favor of the party with the rightful claim to it, as determined by the Court. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff.   

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said:  “Michel Cohen fled the United States rather than face charges that he used others’ expensive artworks to defraud his numerous victims. With this civil action, we ensure that a valuable painting that he left behind when he fled will end up with the rightful owner.” 

As alleged in the Government’s complaint-in-interpleader, the Painting is one of a series of largely abstract canvases that Jean Dubuffet, a prolific French avant-garde artist and founder of the “Art Brut” or “raw art” movement, and was completed in 1981.  The Painting’s catalogue raisonné number is E183, in Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet : Psycho-sites (1981 – 1982), fasc. XXXIV.  Similar paintings from this series have sold at auction in recent years for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The Painting was initially the property of the Dubuffet estate, before it was sold to a purchaser in Asia through a Paris gallery in 1993.  The Painting’s provenance between 1993 and 1996, the earliest known date that it was in Cohen’s possession, is unknown.  Cohen has not had possession of the Painting since 2001, when he left it with a New York art dealer to attempt its sale.  That sale never occurred and Cohen has never made an attempt to reclaim the Painting, which was since deposited with the FBI.  The complaint names as interpleader defendants Cohen, as the last known claimed owner of the Painting, and Sotheby’s Financial Services, Inc., an art financing company which has a 2002 civil judgment from New York Supreme Court against Cohen for defrauding it of over a million dollars.  The complaint also names several John Does, individuals and entities who are unknown at this time but may also hold judgments against Cohen or may have had title to the Painting prior to 1996.  If you hold a court judgment against Cohen or believe you have a claim to title of the Painting, please contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office at (866) 874-8900. 

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Mr. Berman thanked the FBI for its ongoing efforts in this matter.

This case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Division.  Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Cha-Kim is in charge of the case.