The economics of suburban tag sales collided recently with the world of fine art galleries, when an oil painting acquired for $200 was offered at auction for at least $20,000.
Helen Giustino sued Sidney Hiller, Briarcliff Manor, Nov. 19 in Westchester Supreme Court, accusing him of bypassing her at her garage sale and pressuring her son, Joseph, into relinquishing “Country Fair,” by Aldro Hibbard, for $200.
Hiller then consigned the painting to Clarke Auction Gallery, Larchmont, where the reserve price was set at $20,000.
Hiller does not dispute the prices but he paints a very different picture of the circumstances. The accusations, he said, are “an outright lie, and we intend to dispute it.”
Initially, Giustino sued the gallery, but the charges were dropped on Nov. 25.
“I got caught in the middle,” gallery owner Ronan Clarke said, “and having led a good clean life, I got rid of it like a hot potato.”
He returned the painting to Hiller.
The gallery had posted “Country Fair” for the Nov. 24 auction at $20,000 to $30,000. The catalog depicted Hibbard (1886–1972) as a sought-after name and described the work as among his best.
Hibbard is known primarily for New England mountain snow scenes. But “Country Fair,” a 25-by-30-inch oil-on-canvas work, departed somewhat from his usual style, in that there is no snow and the pastoral scene, according to the catalog, is filled with “human energy.” Adults and children huddle around the fair’s attractions, amidst livestock and automobiles and under an American flag.
“The painting is so evocative of country life that it was included in a Maxwell House coffee advertising campaign,” the catalog says, “appearing in Life magazine as a depiction of the ‘American Scene.’”
Helen Giustino, an 88-year-old widow, and her late husband had acquired the painting at a flea market about 40 years ago.
Recently, she decided to sell her home in Thornwood and move in with a son on Long Island. She scheduled an Oct. 5 tag sale to dispose of furniture, tools, small appliances and odds and ends.
Items for sale were displayed on two tables at the entrance of her garage.
“Country Fair” has great sentimental value, she says in an affidavit. “I had no idea it had any real value, other than that it meant a great deal to me and brought back memories of my late husband.”
It was not for sale, and it was stored under a tarp in the garage awaiting the move.
Her son, Joseph, picks up the story in his affidavit. He manned the tables while his mother was elsewhere in the house. He saw Hiller, who he knows, looking at items for sale.
“While my back was turned, Hiller made his way past the tables to the back of the garage. When I turned around, he was holding a painting which had been wrapped up in a tarp.”
He says Hiller offered $200, but he replied that it was not for sale and that it belonged to his mother.
“Hiller was insistent. He kept saying it’s a $200 painting and thrust money into my hand. I was caught off guard and Hiller left with the painting.”
About two weeks later, according to the complaint, Helen Giustino realized the painting was missing, and her son told her what had happened. Then Joseph discovered that the painting was posted for sale at the auction gallery.
Joseph claims he immediately called Hiller and said his mother wanted it back.
“He said he would think about it and get back to me,” Joseph says in the affidavit. “He never did.”
Hiller is a retired dentist who has described himself as a “creative artist and sculptor and a recognized collector of antiques and fine art.”
“They (the Giustinos) are tag sale people,” he said in a telephone interview. “I am a tag sale person. It’s what I do for fun. I go to tag sales religiously on weekends.”
He went to this tag sale because he wanted to buy a wagon wheel that had been advertised. He haggled with Joseph but they couldn’t agree on a price.
Then he saw “Country Fair” on a table, believing it to be for sale.
He did not recognize the artist, but the painting interested him because it essentially depicted a flea market, the very world he has a passion for.
He said Joseph asked for $250, he offered $200, and they agreed.
“Joe is 60-something, six-three, ex-police. He’s a towering figure. I’m 81. I haven’t thrust $200 into anybody’s hands for years,” Hiller said.
He dropped the painting off at The Framing Gallery in Hawthorne for an appraisal. Forty-five minutes later he was called back and told that it was worth at least $10,000 to $12,000.
He took it home, googled Hibbard and consulted with friends, verifying the details.
Two weeks later he sent a photograph of the painting to Ronan Clarke. The gallery’s fine art specialist came to the house and offered a $20,000 reserve price.
A week or so later, he said, Joseph called. He had gone to the gallery to inquire about auctioning furniture and had seen the painting. Hiller claims Joseph suggested that they make a deal and split the price.
“I told my wife that in five days we’re going to get a FedX package with a letter from an attorney. And that’s what happened.”
Helen Giustino’s attorney, John M. Murtagh, White Plains, argues several causes of action that justify reversing the deal. Hiller knew that Joseph had no authority to sell the painting, according to the complaint. No one knew the value of the painting, so the $200 price was a mistake and there was no “meeting of the minds.” Hiller used his superior knowledge as a collector and dealer to gain an unfair advantage. Hiller was unjustly enriched.
“They’re accusing me of something that’s not in my character,” Hiller said, “of stealing, basically, unwrapping a painting while Joe is turned around and slamming money into his hands and running away with the painting!”
He said there are basically two rules in tag sales: you negotiate the price, and if you break it, you own it.
“It’s so disappointing. Every tag sale person has sold something that was later sold for a lot more. That’s the way it is.”
And “Country Fair”?
“It’s in my home hanging here, safe and secure.”