A $200 million art world spat between a prominent Philadelphia philanthropist and an eccentric New York art collector grew increasingly messy Thursday, as one of the men invoked the other’s ties to disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein in an effort to discredit his rival.
In court filings, John H. McFadden — scion of one of the founding families behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art — denied claims that he stole a bronze cast of one of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s most famous works from Stuart Pivar, a prolific Manhattan art buyer and onetime friend of Andy Warhol.
Instead, McFadden maintained, Pivar agreed to sell the work, which the collector valued at $100 million, for a pittance because he needed quick cash and could not attract another buyer, due in part to his longtime friendship with Epstein.
Pivar, 89, has described the financier, who died in prison in August while facing federal prosecution for sex trafficking of underage girls, as “his best pal for decades.” He said in interviews that he often served as an art consultant to Epstein, who decorated his home with “fake art which looked like real art.”
But the New York collector balked in an interview Thursday at McFadden’s claim that those ties made him toxic to buyers.
“He brings up the fact that I was a friend of Jeffrey Epstein and that Jeffrey Epstein liked to buy fake paintings as though to characterize me as if there’s something wrong with me,” Pivar said. “I don’t know for what reason.”
In addition to offering McFadden’s first public response to the $200 million lawsuit Pivar filed against him in New York Supreme Court this summer, Thursday’s filing opened a new front in their tabloid-worthy feud.
McFadden, 72, is countersuing Pivar with a $5 million libel and defamation claim filed Thursday, stemming from accusations the New York collector first made in a July story in The Inquirer.
Pivar’s statements “have had a devastating and irreparable effect on McFadden’s personal and professional reputations,” McFadden’s New York attorneys Steven Cooper and Lonnie Klein wrote.
In the Inquirer story, Pivar alleged that McFadden offered to broker a sale of his prized Brancusi bust — a cast of the sculptor’s Mademoiselle Pogany II — to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and suggested that it would be advantageous to them both if the transaction were made in McFadden’s name.
Brancusi is widely acclaimed as one of the pioneers of modernist sculpture. At the time he carved his first iteration of Mademoiselle Pogany in marble in 1912 — depicting an egg-shaped, blank-eyed woman with slender hands cushioning her face — he had only just begun to draw attention from collectors and critics in Europe and the United States.
Today, the Art Museum houses one of the largest collections of his work. McFadden’s granduncle helped shape the institution’s legacy a century ago by donating his extensive art collection and demanding a hall fit to display it. That request in part led to the construction of the neoclassical museum on the Parkway.
McFadden and his wife, Lisa D. Kabnick, also have served as trustees for other arts organizations including the Art Museum, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Academy of Music, the Curtis Institute, and the Barnes Foundation. (Kabnick, a senior adviser at the law firm Pepper Hamilton, is also vice chair of The Inquirer’s board of directors.)
Pivar claims it was that pedigree — and a recommendation from McFadden’s sister, renowned fashion designer Mary McFadden — that persuaded him to go along with the proposed sale. So when McFadden drew up a contract in May transferring ownership of the Brancusi to himself for a nominal $100,000 fee to enable the transaction, Pivar says, he signed it.
But he insists that both men understood that contract as an on-paper deal only and that proceeds of any sale to the museum or another buyer would be returned to him.
In his court filings Thursday, McFadden calls that story “false and scurrilous,” and claims the $100,000 deal was always meant to be final. His court papers paint Pivar as desperate for cash and offer a number of reasons he might have scared off buyers willing to pay more than a cut-rate price.
Among them: Pivar’s litigious history — a record that includes 13 lawsuits he has filed in the last two decades — and a troubled past with New York’s major auction houses. A month after suing McFadden this summer, Pivar filed a $6 billion lawsuit against Sotheby’s over the company’s refusal to work with him.
As for Epstein, McFadden maintains that Pivar’s public association with the financier also drove his willingness to sell at any cost to whoever was willing to buy from him.
Although the Brancusi transaction occurred months before Epstein’s July arrest mired him in scandal, Pivar has made no effort since to hide his affection for the man — or his opinion of the financier’s accusers
In an interview with Mother Jones magazine in August, Pivar described Epstein as “profoundly sick,” but insisted he knew nothing about his crimes. He mused that perhaps they weren’t as close as he thought because he never received an invitation to what Pivar described as Epstein’s “Isle of Babes,” an apparent reference to the private island in the Caribbean where the financier is alleged to have sexually assaulted underage girls.
“If Jeffrey Epstein was found guilty of fooling around with one 16-year-old trollop, nobody would pay any attention,” Pivar told the magazine. “What Jeffrey did is nothing in comparison to the rapes and the forceful things which people did. Jeffrey had to do with a bunch of women who were totally complicit.”