Sotheby’s Sued by Windex-Maker S.C. Johnson Over Frank Lloyd Wright Desk and Chair

One week before its important 20th century design sale, Sotheby’s was hit with a suit concerning its featured items: a rare desk (pictured) and chair from the S.C. Johnson and Son Administration Building, designed in 1938, and widely held to be one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most iconic architectural works. Like the building, the furniture that was designed for it exemplifies American Modernism.

With the desk (lot 147) estimated to go for $400,000 to $600,000 and the chair (lot 148) $80,000 to $120,000, the sale of this desk and chair are highly anticipated. In 2011, a similar chair from the S.C. Johnson and Son Administration building sold at Sotheby’s for $46,875 (beyond its high estimate of $24,000).

But according to the complaint filed yesterday in federal court in New York by S.C. Johnson and Son, Inc. (S.C. Johnson) the company that manufactures Windex and Pledge claims the desk and chair set for next week’s sale are stolen goods.

While S.C. Johnson does on limited occasions, as per the complaint, loan furniture and objects designed by Wright to museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its policy is not to otherwise transfer, sell, loan, or gift, them. “Accordingly,” reads the complaint, “the removal of the Desk and Chair from the Administration Building was not authorized.”

The Sotheby’s catalogue lists the provenance of the desk as having been acquired from S.C. Johnson by “chemist Elerslie E. Luther, Berkeley, CA circa 1950,” and thereby transferred by descent until it reached the present owner who acquired it from Jeffrey V. Luther at an unspecified time after 1990. But there is no evidence in the S.C. Johnson records of any connection between the company and Elerslie Luther.

Likewise, the catalogue lists the chair as having been gifted by Samuel C. Johnson to a private collector in 1972, sold in 2002 at Butterfields in Los Angeles, and thereafter acquired by the current owner. The “gift” is allegedly inconsistent with records of S.C. Johnson.

Though the company has demanded on prior occasions that Sotheby’s stop this specific sale of the desk and chair from going forward, it has not stopped the sale. When asked for its position on the sale, Sotheby’s had no comment.

In the past, Sotheby’s has stated that its policy is not to go forward with a sale in a case where a title is in dispute in an effort to ensure that good title passes to the buyer (See the case of Shirley Rountree v. Sotheby’s over a disputed 1884 watercolor by Winslow Homer).

Without the Wright desk and chair, though, Sotheby’s sale loses its centerpieces. Other highlights of the sale include a 1925 six-panel “Saint-Gildas” screen by Jean Dunand ($120,000 to $180,000), a prototype “Lage Stoel” chair designed by Gerrit Thomas Rietveld circa 1950 ($50,000 to $70,000), and a bronze of the “Rape of Europa” by sculptor Claude Lalanne ($250,000 to $350,000).

Though it’s been over 60 years since the alleged theft of the desk and chair, per New York’s demand and refusal rule (if New York law were to apply to this case), the statute of limitations on a conversion claim (such as that by S.C. Johnson against Sotheby’s) doesn’t begin to run until there has been a demand for the misappropriated property and a refusal to return it. That would give S. C. Johnson three years to file suit from the time Sotheby’s refused to return it.

But it’s unclear whether or not New York law would apply in this case. Each of the parties is from a different state. While Sotheby’s is in NY, S.C. Johnson is based in Wisconsin, and the current owner of the desk and chair, defendant “John Doe,” lives in California, which has a different rule where statute of limitations are concerned in such cases. As per the California “discovery rule,” claims have to be made within three years of when the injured party (here S.C. Johnson) discovers, or should have discovered by exercising reasonable intelligence and diligence, the facts on which they’re basing their claim. Perhaps the company should have discovered the chair when it was auctioned at Butterfields in Los Angeles in 2002.

— Rozalia Jovanovic (@Ruschka)

(Image: An Important and Rare Desk from the S.C. Johnson and Son Administration Building, Racine, Wisconsin. Courtesy Sotheby’s.)