Lisa Schiff, a prominent New York art adviser, is facing a lawsuit over how she handled the recent sale of a $2.5 million Adrian Ghenie painting at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
The lawsuit, which was filed by Richard Grossman and collector Candace Carmel Barasch in New York’s Supreme Court on Thursday, alleges that Schiff and her advisory firm sought to defraud them by refusing to pay fees owed as a result of the sale.
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Doing so, the lawsuit claims, was “part of a much larger Ponzi scheme that Defendants were running, taking money from one client to pay another, and to fund Schiff’s lavish lifestyle.”
The work at the center of the suit is Ghenie’s The Uncle 3 (2019), which featured in a State Hermitage Museum show in St. Petersburg, Russia the year it was produced. According to the suit, Barasch had learned of the work through Schiff that same year. Barasch bought a 50 percent stake in the work, the suit says, and Grossman and his spouse, who was not named, each acquired 25 percent stakes.
Barasch and Grossman claim that the work was sold at Sotheby’s in either December or January, and that Schiff wired them each $225,000, with Grossman distributing half of his share to his spouse. Things allegedly shifted in the months afterward, however.
The suit claims that Barasch and Grossman continued to be owed $1.8 million, and that when they followed up with Schiff, there continued to be delays. Matters may have come to a head earlier this week, when Schiff allegedly told Grossman “she did not have the money owed to Plaintiffs, and to call her attorney—and then walked away from him,” per the suit.
“Know that I love you,” Schiff told Barasch in a text message reprinted in the suit. “Not able to talk but later today.”
Schiff is well-known, both within the market and to some degree even outside it. “These days, top collectors tend to rely on art advisers for guidance as to what they should or shouldn’t buy—and one of the better-known names is the New York–based consultant Lisa Schiff,” wrote the New York Times last year, reporting that the actor Leonardo DiCaprio was one of her clients.
She runs SFA Advisory, a New York–based firm that, on its website, says it “prides itself on making the art world transparent for its clients, helping them navigate the complex web of relationships and platforms.” But the suit accuses Schiff of “abject hypocrisy” in that regard.
By way of example, the suit cites Schiff’s lifestyle, which includes “a New York apartment rented at $25,000 per month, international first class travel with concierge services and limousine services, including vacations at five-star hotels, shopping sprees in New York and Europe for designer clothes and jewelry, private school tuition for her child, among other things, and to make payments owed to other clients of Schiff and her businesses.”
Lawsuits such as this one are rare, as collectors such as Barasch, who appeared on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list each year between 2014 and 2018, do not often seek to publicly air the details of private transactions.
Barasch appears to have at one point been close to Schiff. In a 2019 New York Times profile of Barasch, she called Schiff her “partner in crime,” saying that Schiff had helped her navigate how to buy art when she was starting out as a collector.
“It’s a sad day in the art world when a trusted advisor who professed transparency and integrity is discovered to have been stealing from her longstanding friends and clients,” said Wendy Lindstrom, a lawyer for Barasch and Grossman, in a statement to ARTnews.
Seeking a jury trial, Barasch and Grossman are now asking for more than $2 million in damages and for Schiff to forfeit her $250,000 commission on the Ghenie sale.
Schiff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.