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$100M Monet Painting at Center of Brooklyn Legal Fight

 An art collector and religious scholar's family has accused businessman Shaya Gordon (inset) of  wrongfully holding a Claude Monet painting worth $100 million. Gordon, who lives in this Crown Heights home, says the impressionist painting is a fake, but refuses to return it to the family.
An art collector and religious scholar's family has accused businessman Shaya Gordon (inset) of wrongfully holding a Claude Monet painting worth $100 million. Gordon, who lives in this Crown Heights home, says the impressionist painting is a fake, but refuses to return it to the family.
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DNAinfo.com/James Fanelli; inset: Facebook/Lamplighters Yeshiva

CROWN HEIGHTS — Show us the Monet!

That’s the message that's been sent to Crown Heights businessman Shaya Gordon and his siblings who are accused of wrongfully holding onto a painting by Impressionist master Claude Monet.

Another Brooklyn family, whose deceased patriarch, David Arakie, was an avid art collector, filed a lawsuit last September against Gordon and his sisters, claiming that the alleged Monet painting “Women in Arles” belongs to them and they want it back.

The signed artwork, which was once exhibited at Southampton’s Parrish Art Museum in the early 1970s, depicts women washing clothes in a stream and is worth $100 million, Arakie’s heirs say.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in a longstanding feud over the painting — one that has involved allegations of physical threats and has clogged up courts in Brooklyn, Manhattan and upstate New York for more than a decade.

Throughout the bitter standoff, Gordon, 40, has brushed aside the accusations, claiming that the Monet painting is a fake but also refusing to return it to Arakie’s heirs.

Gordon has said his father, a businessman and philanthropist, received the painting and six other pieces of art from Steven Dearakie, a cash-strapped and ailing son of Arakie, in exchange for financial help.

Gordon declined to comment for this story, but in an earlier proceeding he explained in an affidavit his reasoning for why the Monet was his family’s rightful property.

“My father was a very generous man and helped out many people financially,” he wrote.

“This included Steve Dearakie, who needed both physical and financial help. My father had informed me that in repayment of my father’s generosity, Mr. Dearakie gave my father the seven [pieces of art].”

How the alleged Monet made its way into Gordon’s family began in 1971, a year before Arakie’s death.

At the time, Arakie, who collected art and religious items, permitted his son Steven Dearakie to keep the Monet for display in his home.

The agreement came with the condition that when Arakie died, Dearakie and his four siblings would each hold a one-fifth share in the painting, according to the lawsuit filed earlier this year in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

Dearakie spoke eight languages, collected art and was a successful publisher with homes in Manhattan, Florida and upstate Loch Sheldrake.

But by 2003, he had suffered a reversal of fortune.

A drawn-out divorce and bankruptcy proceeding in the 1990s left Dearakie in financial arrears and in jeopardy of losing his upstate home to foreclosure. He was also suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and a series of strokes that left him with limited mobility.   

In a last-ditch effort to save his home, Dearakie was introduced to Gordon’s father, Schabse Gordon, through a mutual friend, Martin Cohen.

Schabse, who lived in Crown Heights but ran a food distribution business in Ulster County, had a reputation of helping people in need in the Jewish community and having experience in the antiques market.

He agreed to give Dearakie a $100,000 personal loan on his mortgage and to help him sell seven cherished pieces of art, including the Monet painting, according to Cohen and Dearakie’s relatives.

The deal was also recorded in a handwritten note that itemized the seven pieces and was signed by Schabse, court documents show.

In December 2003, Cohen and Dearakie’s caretaker, Karen Spiegelman, loaded five of the pieces into the trunk of a car and tied two large pieces to the roof, then delivered them to Schabse and his wife Fredda Gordon.

The plan was for the Gordons to find a buyer for the Monet through a gallerist, but a sale never happened.

Cohen told DNAinfo New York that the prospect of a sale dimmed after two appraisers in the city examined the Monet and determined it was a fake.

“They both confirmed it was a very beautiful painting, but it was not a Monet,” Cohen said. “[Monet’s] name was on the painting but it wasn’t by him.”

While hope remained the painting would eventually be authenticated, the possibility of an imminent sale completely collapsed when Schabse died on Sept. 8, 2004, while still possessing the painting. Dearakie died a month later at 73.

Since Dearakie’s death, various parties connected to him have tried to pry the seven pieces of art away from Shaya and his family.

First Dearakie’s caretaker, Karen Spiegelman, filed a lawsuit in 2005 in Sullivan County Supreme Court against Schabse’s family and demanded the painting’s return to her. But she later abandoned the litigation.

Then in 2008, Edward Cohn, Dearakie’s brother and the administrator of his estate, took legal action in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court against Fredda Gordon to find and obtain the Monet painting.

During the proceedings, Fredda said in a deposition that her son Shaya Gordon took the painting from her Crown Heights apartment.

In 2011 Shaya also admitted in an affidavit to having the alleged Monet and to having reached out to Mechel Handler, a nephew of Cohn, to suggest that the two families have a rabbinical court decide the matter.

But the offer went nowhere, and Mechel, who lives at the same Midwood address as Cohn, later claimed in an affidavit that Shaya threatened him with physical violence if the litigation against Fredda didn’t end. Shaya has denied the allegation.

Despite disclosures, the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court case dragged on for years without any resolution.

Then in 2014 Cohn, his sister and the children of two other siblings filed the lawsuit in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

Evan Newman, a lawyer for the Arakie’s heirs, declined to comment on the case. Neither the Arakie side nor the Gordons would provide DNAinfo with a picture of the painting.

While the Gordons claim the painting is fake, Arakie’s heirs say it’s real and cite its inclusion in an exhibition at the Parrish Art Museum as proof.

The Arakie heirs have a copy of a certificate of insurance from Lloyd’s of London that covered the painting while it was on loan to the museum from July 25, 1973, to Sept. 10, 1973. The coverage amount was $400,000.

The painting was part of an exhibit that ran during the summer that celebrated the museum’s then 75th anniversary. The show pooled paintings from various Hamptonites’ private collections and included works from such heavyweights as Rembrandt, Picasso and de Kooning.

Jean Weber, the director of the museum at the time of 1973 show, said she didn’t remember the Monet painting or Dearakie, but confirmed that the museum used Lloyd's as an insurer.

Paul Tucker, a leading Monet expert and former professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, told DNAinfo that discovering a “brand-new, unknown and undocumented Monet is extremely rare.”

Tucker said that the painting’s title, “Women in Arles,” makes it unlikely that it’s a bona fide Monet. While Arles, a French city located on the Rhone River, was a popular painting spot for artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Monet was not known to have gone there.

“There is no letter from him or any documentation that he set foot in the city,” Tucker said.

He added that there was only one documented instance in his works of Monet painting a woman laundering clothes. And even in that painting, the woman was a small part of a larger landscape.

“That was really not his subject matter,” Tucker said.

Even if the painting is returned to the Arakie heirs, another legal hurdle awaits.

Two weeks ago Dearakie’s two daughters filed petition in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court. They claim that their uncle, Edward Cohn, has kept them in the dark about the assets in their father’s estate and has failed to provide updates on any litigation.

Paul Weinstein, a lawyer for the daughters, declined to comment.