We often read about lawsuits alleging slander or libel, which arise when one individual makes false and defamatory statements (orally or in writing, respectively) that injure another. But can a collectible be defamed? Most definitely, and one of the most famous legal cases from the art world illustrates just how.
In 1920, Sir Joseph Duveen, one of the most important art dealers of all time, was quoted in the New York World as saying that La Belle Ferroniere, a painting allegedly by Leonardo DaVinci, was a copy of an original that hung in the Louvre. The painting, which belonged to Harry and Andree Hahn of Kansas City, was about to be sold to the Kansas City Art Gallery for $250,000. Duveen's comment, made solely on the basis of a glance at a photograph of the painting, caused the sale to fall through, and the Hahns sued Duveen. After years of pretrial discovery, the highly-publicized trial involving numerous famous art experts on both sides ended in a mistrial in 1929, and the parties reached a settlement shortly before the new trial was scheduled to begin that had Duveen pay $60,000 plus the Hahn's attorney's fees.
More recently, several suits have been brought against non-profit foundations which certify and catalogue the works of particular artists. In every case, the foundation refused to certify a particular work was authentic by placing it in the artist's catalogue raisonne.
The tort of disparagement consists of: (1) a false statement about an object, (2) made with knowledge that it is false, or reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity, (3) which is published in such a way as to make reliance by others reasonably forseeable, and (4) which causes damage to the object's owner. This would include the type of statement made by Duveen (although to the end, Duveen contended that he was right about La Belle Ferroniere, and in 1993 he was proven correct). It does not, however, apply to statements of opinion which are made in good faith, or with the intent to protect the interests of the person to whom it is made. For example, a person who believes that a painting is a fake has a privilege to warn others without being liable to the painting's owner.
A few years ago, I represented the owner of a U.S. commemorative coin which was common in mint state but extremely rare in proof. So rare, in fact, that the Mint had no record of having struck proofs of the particular coin. The coin had been certified as a proof by one of the two major grading services, and my client bought it from a leading national dealer without doubt as to its proof status. Soon thereafter, however, he discovered that the other grading service had refused to certify it as a proof, and that one of the leading specialists in commemorative coinage told him that in his opinion no proofs of the coin existed. My client was advised that these opinions would prevent him from ever selling the coin for much of a premium over its mint state value. Eventually, he recovered his entire purchase price from the dealer. He never considered suing either the grading service that would not certify the coin, or the expert who told him the coin was not a proof. These were good faith opinions, and no legal liability attaches to them.
However, it is easy to imagine examples where careless comments about a collectible's authenticity, designation, or provenance could subject dealers or other experts to lawsuits from collectors or other dealers who are damaged thereby.