Bidding action: Acrimonious fallout from 2013 art sale leads to duel lawsuits

The two checks totaled $426,038.25. Who can say for sure why Robert Fastov you never cashed them? Maybe he didn’t need the money. Whatever the reason, these checks are at the center of two civil cases that will soon be before a Montgomery County judge.

The checks were proceeds from the February 2013 sale of Fastov’s extensive art collection, held at Sloans & Kenyon, an auction house in Chevy Chase, Md. The auction included over 1,500 items, ranging from pewter candlesticks to Chinese vases, from colonial-era portraits to watercolor paintings of Rock Creek Park.

The sale was not a success. During the two auction days, less than half of the lots were sold. One of the elements that do sell, a circa 1917 painting of New Orleans by Ellsworth Woodward, was lost by the auction house, prompting a lawsuit against Sloans & Kenyon from the buyer. (The painting has not been found.)

But the auction brought in six figures. Sloans & Kenyon sent both checks to Fastov. In August 2014, Fastov passed away.

It was 18 months after the auction, and in all that time Fastov had never cashed them. Her daughter, Alexandra Blair Fastov, the executor of his estate, found them among his father’s estate. They had expired, so she asked Sloans & Kenyon to reissue them.

They didn’t, explaining that Fastov never got all of his unsold artwork back, forcing Sloans & Kenyon to store and insure it. These charges had eaten up that $426,038.25. Alexandra sued and Sloans & Kenyon counter-sued, claiming they were owed more money for storage costs.

And that’s pretty much where things are now. A hearing is scheduled for next week in Montgomery County Circuit Court. It sounds like a matter of contracts, but the two sides are at odds over an addendum to the contract that Fastov wrote. His daughter says he waived storage fees. The auction house says no such deal has been reached.

What is clear to me is that the sale was cursed from the start. I have written two previous articles on Fastov and his collection, one on the big sale and the other on the lost Woodward painting. When I met Fastov before the sale, he could not hide his apparent displeasure with Sloans & Kenyon and its owner, Stephanie Kenyon.

Kenyon and his attorney declined to comment for this column.

Fastov felt she had not done enough to publicize the sale. And he was not satisfied with the catalog, despite the fact that he had written it himself. (That was unusual. Even more unusual: Fastov made the sales estimates himself, high estimates, which may explain why so many things didn’t sell.)

“I think maybe I should sue her,” Fastov told me.

But that’s how Fastov spoke. There may be art collectors who are quiet, contemplative, bow-tieless aesthetes. Fastov was not one of them. A lawyer who had been a litigant in the Commerce Department, Fastov was tall and loud and not afraid to go to court.

Things didn’t always end well for him there. In 1993 Fastov tried to get Christie’s of London to sell a landscape he said was from Emil Jakob Schindler, famous Austrian painter of the 19th century. Christie’s, however, refused to auction the painting after Fastov turned down his request to send it to an expert for examination. Nearly four years later, Fastov sued Christie’s, seeking more than $5 million in punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

A judge dismissed the case and convicted Fastov of abusing the litigation process with numerous detailed documents. He also ordered Fastov to pay Christie’s $630,000.

“It was really a kind of Shakespearean tragedy,” Alexandra Fastov said of her father’s battle with Christie’s. She was a teenager at the time and had grown up spending weekends antiquing with her father.

In an interview, she agreed that some people might have found her father brash, but, after all, she said, he had been a litigator. “The truth is, personality isn’t something that goes into a contract,” she said.

Christie’s case and his case against Sloans and Kenyon “really have nothing to do with each other,” Alexandra said.

It is standard practice for an auction house to charge storage fees for uncollected goods – and Fastov had a lot of uncollected goods, hundreds of items. He could have put it up for auction at Sloans & Kenyon, but he didn’t.

Alexandra could have done it too, but she didn’t. She didn’t move it for nearly a year, when she distributed it to auction houses across the country.

Why didn’t Fastov cash those checks? Alexandra claims he was keeping his options open in case he decided he wanted to take legal action.

Kenyon and her attorney declined to comment, but in court papers Kenyon says Fastov told her he was going to destroy the checks “because of the work she and Sloans & Kenyon had done for Mr. Fastov over the course of their 35-year business association.”

I guess it’s an association that everyone now regrets.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

Laura J. Boyer