by Alex Greenberger
Last spring, famed New York art dealer Mary Boone headed to prison after she pleaded guilty for filing false tax returns. After receiving a sentence of 30 months in jail, Boone closed her gallery in what many considered a final chapter in a controversy that had roiled the city's art scene. But a new lawsuit filed by a former director who worked with Boone suggests that the controversy may not be over after all.
On January 14, James Oliver, a former director at Mary Boone Gallery who is now based in New Jersey, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Boone, her gallery, and Boone Associates, a limited partnership behind the enterprise. The lawsuit alleges that the three entities engaged in an "unlawful scheme" that involved the sales of millions of dollars' worth of art by Brice Marden, Sherrie Levine, KAWS, and other artists. Oliver, who began working at Mary Boone Gallery in 1995 and was named director sometime around 2003, also alleges that he is owed $44,325 in unpaid wages that date back to before his resignation, in March 2019.
"Our client, James Oliver, who worked dutifully for Ms. Boone and Mary Boone Gallery for over 24 years, was deceived and divested of significant sums from Ms. Boone's allegedly improper and unlawful conduct," Brett Gallaway, a lawyer representing Oliver, told ARTnews. "We believe that Ms. Boone's inappropriate behavior is ongoing, even while incarcerated, and has and continues to result in significant damages and monies owed to Mr. Oliver. We hope that this action is successful in recovering those sums and property which Mr. Oliver is rightfully owed."
Oliver's suit alleges that Boone "misappropriated" funds earned from the sales of the artworks in question. He also claims that those sales brought in more than $10 million and that Boone instructed the buyers to wire the money to her personal account. "It's mine and I am going to need it when I get out of prison," the dealer allegedly told Oliver when she was asked about the sales, according to the suit.
"While Boone may indeed find herself in dire straits after prison, it should not be at [Oliver's] expense," the suit reads, "nor should Boone be permitted to flagrantly continue her fraudulent scheme of commingling personal and professional assets and using [Mary Boone Gallery] as her private bank."
Michael Sardar, who represented Boone in the 2018 trial over her tax filings, did not respond to a request for comment, and the suit does not identify any additional current representation.
According to the suit, when Boone's gallery conducted sales, Oliver did not always receive his share of the funds brought in. Having acquired a 10 percent interest in Boone Associates in 2015, Oliver expected to receive one-tenth of the profits earned by the gallery. But this did not always happen, according to the lawsuit.
Included in the suit is a mention of a Brice Marden work, Diagrammed Couplet III, that was at one point allegedly in Mary Boone Gallery's possession. According to the suit's narrative, the gallery had bought the work for $425,000 and sold it to Gagosian gallery for $10 million, netting more than $9.57 million in profit. The funds were allegedly transferred to Boone's personal account, and Oliver claims not to have received a share he valued at $957,500. (A representative for Gagosian gallery did not respond to a request for comment.)
The suit also describes the sale of an Eric Fischl painting for $590,000 and a Francesco Clemente portrait of Boone for $200,000. Oliver received nothing from the proceeds of either sale, according to the suit. His filing further claims that Boone is holding some artworks at her apartment, accusing her of having "not properly insured" them.
Oliver claims that, after he resigned from the gallery, he asked Boone when he would receive his 10 percent interest in Boone Associates. "Boone responded that ‘the gallery is worth nothing,'" the suit alleges. "Clearly, this is not the case."
When Boone was sentenced to prison last year, the United States Attorney's Office had accused her of putting $1.6 million in funds from the gallery toward her own personal use—including $800,000 allegedly spent on a renovation of her apartment. The dealer pleaded guilty to claims that she had avoided paying more than $3 million in taxes.
Boone's gallery was founded in 1977 in the downtown art haven of SoHo, and has been considered by many a cornerstone of the city's art history. During the 1980s, it became a go-to space for exhibitions by the day's hottest talents, including Fischl, Clemente, David Salle, and Barbara Kruger, among others.