Fight over Modigliani masterpiece turns ugly

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," he says. "I have them by the balls."

Modigliani finished the painting in Paris in 1916, at the height of his career. 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.

Rusniaczek, who lives on Bay Road, met Tarrant, president of the nearby Tableau Fine Art Group, years ago. "I had a friendly relationship with Walter. I had him over to my house for his 60th birthday," Tarrant says.

In court, Tarrant showed signed contracts with Rusniaczek 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.

Now Rusniaczek says the contracts themselves are forged. "Tarrant said he had a buyer in the Ukraine but never produced anything to prove he really existed," he contends.

That argument hasn't flown in court. On January 18, Circuit Court Judge Valerie Manno Schurr granted Tarrant a summary judgment.

What's more, Chris Marinello, a London-based attorney for the Art Loss Register — a group that tracks stolen art — says he had a taped conversation with Rusniaczek in which the owner admits he never intended to honor his contract. "It's really stupid for Walter to be talking at all about this case at this point," Marinello says, adding he turned the tape over to the FBI.

Schurr is scheduled to rule on a final judgment this week. Rusniaczek, who incidentally faces an $800,000 lien on his Bay Road home, remains defiant. He says he's challenging the ruling.

As for Young Woman With 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.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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