Pierce O’Donnell is a Los Angeles litigator with a track record of big cases. His prominent clients include Shelly Sterling in the $2-billion sale of the L.A. Clippers basketball team in 2014, and he has been a key player in the Sumner Redstone saga, representing the Viacom executive’s ex-companion Manuela Herzer.
But O’Donnell now finds himself in the unusual position of representing himself as a plaintiff in a lawsuit involving a painting that he believes is a real Jackson Pollock and that could be worth more than $100 million.
In the suit filed recently in L.A. Superior Court, O’Donnell said he is a co-owner of the painting, titled “Pink Spring,” with a business partner he entered into an agreement with to acquire the canvas in 2011 with the intention of selling it for a profit.
He said the partner, Maitreya Kadre, a former client who works as an art adviser and New Age spiritualist, has obstructed efforts to bring the painting to market, including attempts to have it authenticated as a work by the famed American Abstract Expressionist.
The potential treasure is languishing in an L.A. storage facility.
“I felt sincere about selling this masterpiece,” O’Donnell said in a recent interview. He believes it is one of the “great art finds of the 21st century. Unfortunately, she has frustrated every effort to sell it.”
Kadre has denied O’Donnell access to the painting, according to the suit. She also has refused to allow the painting to travel to New York for review by art organizations, and she has engaged in “amateurish” attempts to market the canvas on her own, which has potentially damaged its value.
Kadre couldn’t be reached for comment, and her attorney didn’t respond to a request for an interview.
O’Donnell’s lawsuit accuses Kadre of breach of contract and fiduciary duty, as well as fraud, and it seeks a jury trial for unspecified damages. O’Donnell also is suing the storage facility, L.A. Packing, Crating and Transport, accusing it of denying him access to the painting. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
An arbitration agreement in 2012 was reached under which prospective buyers could see the painting. But O’Donnell said Kadre failed to live up to the agreement.
“Pink Spring,” which sits 8 feet wide and 3 feet tall, is executed in Pollock’s signature drip style. It hasn’t been formally authenticated, but O’Donnell believes it’s real in large part because of a piece of writing on the back of the canvas that he said has been verified as belonging to artist Lee Krasner, who was married to Pollock and oversaw their estate.
“Why would her handwriting be on the back?” O’Donnell asked. He acknowledged that Pollock rarely used pink in his paintings, “but he has used it before.”
In the suit, O’Donnell said he had paid more than $200,000 for the acquisition and marketing of the painting, including engaging art appraisers and historians. According to the suit, he has a 30% stake in the net proceeds from the sale of the painting.
Although the provenance of the canvas is “pure,” he said, questions do remain about its past.
The painting’s previous owner was Gregory Comstock, a California resident and grandson of John Adams Comstock, a prominent scientist who worked at what is now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Gregory Comstock said he was given the painting by his grandfather, according to a handwritten will seen by The Times. It remains unclear how his grandfather obtained the painting, though the writing on the back of the canvas — purportedly Krasner’s — reads “JA Comstock.”
After Gregory Comstock died in 2006, the painting became part of a probate battle involving Kadre, who was an art adviser to Comstock. She lost the suit but later acquired the painting with funds from O’Donnell, who was her lawyer in the case.
The administrator of Gregory Comstock’s estate didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Without a clear lineage or historical record, “it would be tough from a selling point,” said Brooks Rice, a fine art appraiser in L.A. “Usually, dealers and auction houses won’t want to touch it unless it has provenance.”
Authenticating the painting is key to a sale, said Ronald Parker, an art adviser who has consulted O’Donnell.
“I met three major international museums, all of whom want this Pollock — if it is authenticated,” Parker said. “The whole thing boils down to her cooperation.”
Parker said the canvas could be judged by the International Foundation for Art Research, a New York organization that will issue a report stating its opinion on authorship. A favorable review from IFAR would enable the painting to sell for more than $100 million, he said.
The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, a philanthropic organization in New York created by the late Krasner, stopped authenticating Pollock paintings in 1996. Museums and art experts are often unwilling to discuss authentication cases for fear of being sued if their opinions turn out to be wrong.
Forged Pollock paintings have found their way into the art market. A scandal surrounding the prominent Knoedler & Co. gallery in New York featured forgeries touted as works by Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and others sold to unsuspecting clients. The gallery shut down in 2011 following lawsuits. In 2014, a man from East Hampton, N.Y., pleaded guilty to selling fake Pollocks.
Debates over potential Pollock paintings can drag on for years, sometimes decades. “Red, Black, and Silver” is a painting that Ruth Kligman, Pollock’s mistress, said the artist created for her in 1956, but it is still a source of disagreement among experts.
For elite collectors and museums, Pollock’s large-scale paintings remain among the most coveted works of modern art because they rarely come up for sale. The record for a Pollock is believed to be around $200 million for the canvas “Number 17A,” sold by David Geffen last year.
The legal tussle with Kadre represents the latest personal challenge for O’Donnell, whose stature in the entertainment industry was once so formidable that Forbes dubbed him the “new Perry Mason in Hollywood.” Last week, Herzer filed a complaint against him in a dispute over legal fees. O’Donnell declined to comment, but his firm called the claims “inaccurate” and “unfounded.”
The attorney filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after a divorce, and he pleaded guilty in 2011 to misdemeanor federal charges of making illegal campaign contributions to John Edwards’ presidential bid.
But at the height of his career, he squared off with entertainment titans in high-profile cases including humorist Art Buchwald’s suit against Paramount over the 1988 movie “Coming to America.” He represented journalist Nikki Finke in her war with Disney and News Corp., as well as actress Faye Dunaway in her suit against Andrew Lloyd Webber, after the songwriter booted her from the musical “Sunset Boulevard.”
O’Donnell is currently at the L.A. firm Greenberg Glusker, and he recently joined Angelina Jolie’s divorce team, which is headed by celebrity attorney Laura Wasser.