Nuns Lose a Long Legal Battle Against Two Art Dealers

William Adolfe Bouguereau, "Notre Dame des Anges" (1889)

Yesterday Antiques & the Arts Online reported on a group of nuns from the Daughters of Mary Mother of Our Savior and St Joseph’s Chapel in Round Top, New York who have lost a long and bitter legal battle against local art appraiser Mark Zaplin and art dealer Mark LeSalle.

According to the article, the Sisters, Zaplin and LeSalle committed the ultimate art sin when they bought a 19th century painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau from the convent in 2006 for $450,000 and then sold it to a Dallas art dealer for a whopping $2.5 million. The nuns sued Zaplin and LeSalle in 2009 for $1.7 million, plus $50 million in punitive damages, but on Monday a judge ruled in favor of the dealer and appraiser.

Mother Superior Bosco of the Daughters of Mary, told the Main Antique Digest back in 2009 that the Sisters were hoping to use the money from the painting to expand their small convent, but were misled by Zaplin and LeSalle.

Hyperallergic spoke with Mark Zaplin, who reveals a different side of the story. According to Zaplin, there was much shady business on the part of the Daughters of Mary and the congregation’s founder Bishop Clarence Kelly, who was involved with the sale of the painting. “I never met the fellow, so the transaction was done at arms-length,” explained Zaplin, “but he definitely seemed to know what he was doing.”

Zaplin recalls that Bishop Kelly sent him a report on the painting with “seller-friendly” language and also did research online to determine the painting’s price point. Yet after Zaplin agreed on $450,000 and wrote the check, Kelly waited three months to cash it, which set off alarms in Zaplin’s head. “At that point I wrote a letter to Mark LeSalle, who I work with on deals, to tell the Bishop to return my check or we would sell the painting. He finally cashed it.”

Zaplin also noted that during the case Kelly said he had emailed Benjamin Doller from Sotheby’s department of 19th century European Paintings to get a second opinion on the value of the painting. According to Kelly, Doller claimed that the painting was worth more, but when testifying in court Doller admitted he had never even received an email from Kelly.

The painting in question is Bouguereau’s “Notre Dame des Anges” from 1889 and depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Zaplin says that the painting is up for sale again, but it hasn’t resold since. For now, Zaplin is just grateful that the whole mess has finally been resolved.

“It was a terrible situation and the judge’s decision is a complete vindication,” he said. “All you have is your reputation in this business.”

The Daughters of Mary Mother of Our Savior and St Joseph’s Chapel responded to our request for comment with:

“We do not have a statement to give at this time.”

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