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An Andy Warhol painting is at the centre of a £2 million High Court battle between a Mayfair art gallery and a Norwegian businessman.
The 1978 piece is from the Shadows series, Warhol's venture away from pop art - including the Campbell's Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe images - that made him famous.
It was due to be sold by the Hay Hill Gallery off Berkeley Square, and at least three collectors are said to have expressed an interest in buying it.
However, the gallery's director Mikhail Zaitsev claims the work has gone missing and is suing Tor Uppstrom, who owns the piece, accusing him of trying to cut him out of the deal to avoid paying commission on the sale.
The black-and-blue piece, which went on display last summer, has been described as a "beautiful example of compelling, almost hypnotic power". Warhol referred to the Shadows series as "disco décor". Asked why, he said: "The opening party had a disco".
Mr Zaitsev said: "Our reputation has been damaged by this as buyers will think we cannot deliver on what we promise. We had a legal agreement with Mr Uppstrom and we expect him to honour the contract or pay us what we are owed." Mr Uppstrom, who lives in Kensington and has interests in property and horse racing as well as art, loaned the piece to the gallery as part of a collection of 40 Warhol works. The gallery paid £184,000 for the loan, on the understanding, it is said, that if any pieces were sold, it would recoup the money and earn commission on the sale. Mr Uppstrom could not be reached for comment.
It is claimed one collector was prepared to pay £3.5 million for Shadows as part of a package with other works. But the sale had not been completed by November last year and Mr Uppstrom allegedly told the gallery the painting had to be sent back to Switzerland and then re-exported back to the UK avoid customs duties.
Mr Zaitsev said: "We had a client ready. We had an agreement it would be sent back within a few weeks. It never returned."
The High Court writ accuses the owner of stalling by saying he was waiting to ship the piece back with other works, or that he was having difficulty contacting the delivery agents, or that he was in a meeting and would call back, which he allegedly never did.
Mr Zaitsev believes Mr Uppstrom felt he could make more money if he sold it himself and cut out the gallery. A similar Warhol work sold at Sotheby's in New York for £2.9 million in May.
The gallery is seeking £2.1 million in damages because the £3.5 million deal fell through when the buyer said he would not take the other paintings without the Warhol.
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