For four decades, Douglas J. Chrismas has been a prominent figure in the contemporary art world. His galleries in Los Angeles and New York have repeatedly showcased some of the world's most important contemporary artists, including Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Irwin to Andy Warhol.
So when Chrismas entreated Jannis Kounellis to let him exhibit his work, the world-renowned Greek artist known for incorporating live animals into his installations readily agreed. He would not have done so, his lawyer said, had he known of Chrismas' history of legal disputes with artists and collectors.
Kounellis, whose work has been exhibited internationally and is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, said he consigned more than $4 million worth of art to Chrismas to sell. Kounellis said he and Chrismas were supposed to split the profits 50-50.
But in a lawsuit filed this week in Los Angeles Superior Court, the sculptor has accused the maverick dealer of keeping most of the profits and refusing to return the pieces that did not sell.
In the 1980s, Chrismas was accused of stealing the work of several major artists. He plead no contest to a criminal charge that he stole seven works by Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Donald Judd. He has also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection at least six times since 1982.
Despite such legal troubles, however, he has continued to be a force in the art world. Chrismas' Los Angeles gallery now features works from such artists as actor Dennis Hopper and sculptor Jeppe Hein, whose work has also appeared in the Venice Biennale and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Chrismas predicted that this lawsuit would soon blow over.
He said he was doing a full accounting of the proceeds from Kounellis' work -- minus the expense of exhibiting it.
"If there is money due to him, most certainly, we will pay it to him," he said this week in an interview.
He also said he was returning all the artwork, which he said was a "monstrous job" because it includes thousands of pounds of lead and steel.
Thomas Lawson, the dean of the School of Art at California Institute of the Arts, said such disputes may seem shocking to outsiders but are less so in the context of the art world, where many deals are closed without written contracts, and where transactions can be complex and involve multiple parties.
"There are situations like this wherever there are ambitious artists and ambitious gallerists," Lawson said.
On one side are artists, many of whom are eager to find a venue in which to show their work.
"Your work doesn't exist until it circulates.... If someone offers you a nice, well-lit space, you tend to want to do it," Lawson said. "We tend not to think about money until it is too late."
On the other side are the gallery owners. They are the artists' link to collectors, museums and others who would buy their work. And often, the gallery owner does more than simply exhibit the artist -- the owner can also shape a career and support an artist's work for years.
In the case of a sculptor such as Kounellis, a gallery owner can be even more important. Sculptures can cost tens of thousands of dollars to make and be expensive to show once they are completed. In many cases, the gallery owner helps to finance the work.
"The work wouldn't exist without him," Lawson said of the gallery owner in such a situation. "It can be contentious if there aren't clear contracts drawn up, and there are rarely clear contracts drawn up."
In the case of Kounellis and Chrismas, for example, the primary agreement was oral, according to the lawsuit.
Nevertheless, in his lawsuit, Kounellis said it was time for the gallery owner to be held accountable for "defrauding artists, clients and art collectors for nearly 30 years."
"An award of punitive damages of no less than $20 million is necessary to punish Chrismas and ... deter such conduct in the future," the lawsuit says.
"We would like to be able to make sure this doesn't happen to other artists," said Ricardo Cestero, one of Kounellis' lawyers.
Canadian by birth, Chrismas arrived in Los Angeles in 1967. Until last year, he also had a gallery in New York. He is known for mounting large-scale exhibitions of work that many would find difficult to show. Ace Gallery Los Angeles, for example, is 27,000 square feet.
He was an early champion of the art of Rauschenberg, Stella and Richard Serra.
Over the years, his gallery has also exhibited work by famous artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Julian Schnabel, Irwin and Roy Lichtenstein.
But all along, he has been dogged by financial troubles -- and lawsuits from artists, collectors and other creditors.