Sotheby's, a Retired Teacher, and California Artist Martín Ramirez

Auctionable behavior in the middle of a folk-art fight

It was the Dunievitz find that finally stirred the Ramirez clan into action. One key bit of information left out of the laudatory reviews by curators and critics is that Ramirez's family never saw a dime from his work. When Ramirez was alive, his family remained in Mexico, supposedly too poor to visit him. He received just one visit, from a nephew, during his three decades of incarceration. And at his death in 1963, he was buried in a pauper's grave.

"This was a very poor family in Mexico, and their ability to do anything about it or to come visit was limited," says Eric Lie-berman, a lawyer representing the family.

As Ramirez's reputation grew steadily, a few of his descendants made their way to California.

When word of the Dunievitz find circulated, two grandchildren, Maria Ramirez Miller and Martín Ramirez Salinas, formed an estate last February in Placer County, California, and demanded a piece of the action.

That effort was successful: Dunievitz agreed to give them a portion of the profit from any sales of the paintings—some of which are currently on display at the Ricco Maresca Gallery in Manhattan.

But when the Ramirez clan intervened with Sotheby's and blocked the sale, Hammond was not so willing to settle. In fact, she fired the first legal salvo, filing suit against the Ramirez estate in California federal court for slander and something called tortious interference.

In the suit, Richmond describes the Ramirez clan as "hiring two lawyers to troll the art world and squeeze money from their distant relation to Martín Ramirez." Lieberman calls this statement "outrageous." Shortly thereafter, the Ramirezes filed a lawsuit of their own in federal court in Manhattan, seeking $3 million and claiming that Hammond and Pasto had acted unethically in taking Ramirez's work.

The central legal issue, obviously, is who owns the work today. There, Richmond contends, possession really is nine-tenths of the law. "The law presumes that if someone has something, it's up to the other guy to prove they don't own it," he says.

And what does his client think of the Ramirez clan? "I think they are completely in the wrong," Hammond tells the Voice. "They have absolutely no right to my personal property. Why don't they go picket the Guggenheim?"

The Ramirez family argues that because the artist had been institutionalized, he didn't have the capacity to administer his affairs, including giving away his work. And Pasto, they claim, had no right to act as he did. "The position of the estate is that that person had no authority whatsoever to take any of those works for any purpose," Lieberman says, "and . . . the institution had no such authority either."

Hammond's lawyers recently moved to dismiss the New York case, arguing that it's properly a California dispute. And that's where things stand at the moment. Meanwhile, the 17 Ramirez paintings sit in a vault at Sotheby's, awaiting a final resolution.

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