The two checks totaled $426,038.25. Who can say for sure why Robert Fastov never cashed them? Maybe he didn’t need the money. Whatever the reason, those checks are at the center of two civil cases soon to go before a judge in Montgomery County.
The checks were the 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 more than 1,500 items, everything from pewter candlesticks to Chinese vases, Colonial-era portraits to watercolors of Rock Creek Park.
The sale was not a success. Over the two-day auction, fewer than half the lots sold. One of the items that did 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 did bring in six figures. Sloans & Kenyon sent the two checks to Fastov. In August of 2014, Fastov died.
That was 18 months after the auction, and in all that time, Fastov had never cashed them. His daughter, Alexandra Blair Fastov, the executor of his estate, found them among her father’s possessions. They had expired, so she asked Sloans & Kenyon to reissue them.
They did not, explaining that Fastov had never picked up all his unsold artwork, requiring Sloans & Kenyon to store it and insure it. These fees had eaten up that $426,038.25. Alexandra sued, and Sloans & Kenyon countersued, claiming it was owed more money for storage fees.
And that’s pretty much where things stand now. A hearing is scheduled for next week in Montgomery County Circuit Court. It sounds like a contracts matter, but the two parties disagree on an addendum to the contract Fastov wrote. His daughter says it waived the storage fees. The auction house says no such agreement was reached.
What’s clear to me is that the sale was cursed from the start. I wrote two previous columns about Fastov and his collection, one previewing the big sale and another about the lost Woodward painting. When I met Fastov before the sale, he couldn’t hide his apparent displeasure with Sloans & Kenyon and its owner, Stephanie Kenyon.
Kenyon and her attorney declined to comment for this column.
Fastov felt she hadn’t done enough to publicize the sale. And he was unhappy with the catalogue, despite the fact that he had written it himself. (That was unusual. Even more unusual: Fastov came up with the sales estimates himself, too — high ones, which may explain why so much stuff didn’t sell.)
“I think I may have to sue her,” Fastov told me.
But that’s how Fastov talked. There may be art collectors who are quiet, contemplative, bow-tied aesthetes. Fastov was not one of them. A lawyer who had been a litigator at the Commerce Department, Fastov was big and loud and not afraid to go to court.
Things did not always end well for him there. In 1993, Fastov tried to get Christie’s of London to sell a landscape he said was by Emil Jakob Schindler, a well-known, 19th-century Austrian painter. Christie’s, however, declined to auction the painting after Fastov rejected its request to send it to an expert for his review. 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 excoriated Fastov for abusing the litigation process with numerous verbose filings. He also ordered Fastov to pay Christie’s $630,000.
“It was truly kind of a 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 is not something that goes into a contract,” she said.
The Christie’s case and her own against Sloans & Kenyon “really don’t have anything to do with each other,” Alexandra said.
It is standard practice for an auction house to charge storage fees for uncollected property — and Fastov had a lot of uncollected property, hundreds of items. He could have put it up for auction again at Sloans & Kenyon, but he didn’t.
Alexandra could have done that, too, but she didn’t. She did not move it for almost a year, when she distributed it among auction houses across the country.
Why didn’t Fastov cash those checks? Alexandra claims that he was keeping his options open in case he decided he did want to sue.
Kenyon and her attorney declined to comment, but in court documents, Kenyon says Fastov told her that he was going to destroy the checks “because of the work that she and Sloans & Kenyon had performed for Mr. Fastov over their 35-year business association.”
I’m guessing that’s an association everyone is regretting now.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.