The painting is lovely: A young woman with a mask-like face twists her ethereal neck to the side. Titled Young Woman With a White Collar, it's a classic by Amedeo Modigliani. The fight over the $5 million work, however, is anything but beautiful.
Tod Tarrant, a Miami Beach-based dealer, says he spent $200,000 setting up a buyer, only for its owner to back out of a contract to split the profits. A circuit court judge agreed in January, awarding Tarrant a summary judgment. But Walter Rusniaczek, the owner, says he's the victim of an international conspiracy to take the painting from him.
"It's a complete fraud," Rusniaczek says. "I have them by the balls."
Modigliani finished the painting in Paris in 1916, at the height of his powers. Rusniaczek says he received the piece in 1984 as a gift from a Jesuit priest ("My spiritual advisor," he says) who had bought it at auction in the 1930s.
In court, Tarrant showed signed contracts with Rusnaiczek to split the payout if Tarrant found a buyer. The dealer says he spent thousands exhibiting the painting in Rome and then found a collector willing to pay $5.5 million.
That's when Rusniaczek balked. He told Tarrant he'd given the painting to his wife, an eye doctor who works in Moscow, and thus couldn't honor the deal.
That argument hasn't flown in court. On January 18, Circuit Court Judge Valerie Manno Schurr granted Tarrant a summary judgment.
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Schurr is scheduled to rule on a final judgment this week. Rusniaczek, who incidentally faces a $800,000 lien on his Bay Road home, remains defiant. He's filed a motion to dismiss the lien and says he's challenging Schurr's ruling.
As for the Young Woman in a White Collar, its owner says art lovers can still appreciate the Modigliani work, court battles or not -- it's en route to Taiwan for an international exhibition.