In its first response to a revelation casting doubt on the veracity of auction house prices, Christie's International Board in London yesterday issued a statement taking "the gravest view" of Christie's executive David Bathurst's "erroneous statement made in respect" to sales at a May 19, 1981, auction in New York City.
Bathurst admitted in court papers made public last week that he falsely claimed Christie's -- one of two major auction houses in the world -- had sold a painting by Gauguin for $1.3 million and a van Gogh for $2.1 million.
In fact, the two paintings remained unsold. The papers were part of a suit, brought against Christie's by Cristallina, a Lausanne, Switzerland, art dealership, which was dismissed by the Supreme Court of New York on July 2.
Christie's spokeswoman said Bathurst's status with the auction house is unchanged. He was chairman of Christie's, New York, until December 1984, when he became chairman of Christie's, United Kingdom.
Bathurst, in London, as part of the official statement, accepted "full responsibility for an erroneous statement made in respect to that auction."
John Floyd, Christie's International chairman, yesterday called it an "isolated lapse from the high standard of conduct that Christie's employs." He added that "this error by Mr. Bathurst is regretted by him and the board." Floyd went on to say that "what had taken place was not Christie's policy and would certainly not happen in the future."
The scandal has aroused the art and auction world. The accuracy of auction prices is especially important since they help set the prices for subsequent sales. In recent years, art prices generally have spiraled upward, with a dip in 1981, the year Bathurst falsely reported the two sales. Bathurst himself had explained in a statement earlier this week that he lied about the sale of the paintings in an effort to "contain the possible negative impact on the art market."
Christie's also said yesterday its representatives had met with Angelo J. Aponte, the New York commissioner of consumer affairs, to discuss auction practices, which "have been under review for the past several months."
Dimitry Jodidio, Cristallina's principal officer, brought the action in 1982 against the auction house of Christie, Manson & Woods, charging Christie's with "wrongful conduct, negligence and breach of their fiduciary duty." Cristallina had asked for $10 million in damages, charging that the prices obtained for those paintings that eventually were sold were far less that Christie's appraised value.
Cristallina, said its attorney Robert Weiner, plans to "seek to reargue the motion before the same judge. If he doesn't reverse his decision, we will appeal to the intermediate court, appellate division."
Cristallina had offered at auction eight Impressionist paintings. One, a portrait by Edgar Degas of Eugene Manet, the younger brother of painter Edouard Manet, actually sold for $2.2 million, more than double the previous Degas record at auction. Five other paintings -- a Renoir portrait, a Monet seascape, a Cezanne of an abandoned house, a van Gogh of rats and a Morisot -- were at that time said to be unsold. At the auction, the owner of the paintings was not given, though there was speculation it was Jodidio.