High Court determines ownership of Damien Hirst painting fought over in family feud

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A family dispute about the ownership of a Damien Hirst painting, ‘Beautiful tropical, jungle painting (with pink snot)’ bought for only £68,000 in 1998, has been decided in favor of Stewarts’ client, Robert Tibbles. Geoff Kertesz, Catriona Abraham and Francesca Bugg, who acted for Robert Tibbles in the case, examines the decision.

Robert Tibbles was an early follower of the ‘Young British Artists’ and has a long history of collecting contemporary art. Unfortunately, he has been engaged in a family disagreement that boiled over into a dispute over one of his pieces of artwork, a Damien Hirst painting entitled ‘Beautiful tropical, jungle painting (with pink snot)’.

Robert’s father, Nigel, and twin brother, Sebastian, sued him. They claimed that they, not Robert, owned the painting. Following a three-day trial over the ownership of the painting, His Honor Judge Geraint Webb QC determined that Robert had full title to the painting and rejected Nigel and Sebastian’s claims in full.

Background to the argument

Robert bought the painting in 1998 for £68,000, paying in two installations of £10,000 and £58,000. In happier times, Robert and the family had a history of using offshore companies to purchase assets, and the gallery issued invoices for the painting to two British Virgin Islands (BVI) companies controlled by Nigel and Sebastian.

The painting hung on Robert’s wall for more than 20 years. He insured it, and neither his father nor brother ever acted in a manner that suggested either of them had any interest in the painting. His father conceded he “had no interest in abstract or contemporary art”.

Unfortunately, family relations broke down irretrievably in 2014. The court used the term “litigation warfare” to describe the deterioration in the relationship. Robert’s father and brother have issued multiple claims against him in various countries.

The dispute arose when Robert sold the painting as part of a collection in February 2020 for £350,000.

This prompted Nigel and Sebastian, standing behind a BVI company, to issue a claim alleging that they, rather than Robert, owned the painting. The dispute proceeded to a trial, where the central issue was a simple one: what was the ultimate source of the funds used to buy the painting?

Evidence in the case

The case turned largely on the credibility of the evidence given by the family members:

  • The judge said Robert’s evidence “was calm and measured at all stages in the face of some firm cross-examination, including on issues of alleged forgery”. The judge formed the impression that “he was giving evidence honestly and was doing his best to assist the court”.
  • The judge found that Sebastian, on the other hand, “had no direct knowledge about the purchase of the painting… His allegations that his twin brother is relying on forged documents are based on his reading of those documents, rather than any direct knowledge of the underlying facts.” In his view, his evidence “was heavily influenced by the wider ‘family feud’”.
  • In the judge’s view, Nigel “was attempting to give accurate evidence. However, his evidence concerning the details of the purchase of the painting was inconsistent and contradictory in some important respects”. The judge believed “he had no real memory of the details relating to the purchase”.

Findings

The court found it to be “inherently improbable” that Nigel decided to buy the painting on behalf of the BVI companies either as a financial investment or because he “liked” it. The court felt that Nigel’s “reconstruction of the relevant events had, perhaps, been colored by the subsequent ‘family feud’”.

As a result, the court concluded that Robert was the ultimate source of the payments and held he had always had full title to the painting.

While it is unfortunate that this matter proceeded to a trial and could not be resolved amicably, we are pleased that the court found in our client’s favor and he prevailed in this unfortunate family dispute.

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