Alec Baldwin And His Painting


There appeared a recent article in the New York Times about a dispute between actor Alec Baldwin and several other parties over a painting.  The circumstances are instructive, and I will summarize them.  I am dependent, of course, on information provided on the article with regard to the alleged “facts,” although the opinions expressed here are my own.

Baldwin greatly admired a 1996 painting called “Sea and Mirror” by artist Ross Bleckner.  He liked it so much, in fact, that he was taken to carrying a copy of it around with him, in the same way that a person might carry pictures of family members.  He eventually desired to have the original painting for himself, and made inquiries as to how he might be able to purchase it.

It is indeed an enchanting work.  Iridescent shapes dance in the darkness; it almost looks like a space-age version of Monet’s “Water Lilies.”  The overall impression created by the work is calmness enrobed in color.

Baldwin contacted an art dealer named Mary Boone.  Apparently, Boone assured Baldwin that she could make either the painting or a painting available to him.  The purchase price of $190,000 was tendered to the dealer.  A painting was delivered.  I should say at this point that it seems the only things that the parties agree on is that (1) money changed hands, and that (2) some painting was delivered.

According to Baldwin, what he got was not what the parties agreed he would get.  He believes he received a secondary version of the original, once the owner of the actual original refused to sell it.  According to Boone, Baldwin was never misled about what he was to receive.

Paintings are unique artistic creations; they can’t be interchanged for something else.  They are not fungible goods.  They are, almost by definition, unique.  Therein lies their special quality.

Baldwin, understandably believing he had been deliberately misled, contacted the local prosecutors, who told him that the matter did not rise to the level of a criminal case.  But based on what I’ve read, he certainly may have a claim for breach of contract.  If he did not receive the performance that he believed the parties agreed to, he may have a valid cause of action.

It all comes down to the following questions:

  1.  Was there  an agreement?
  2. If so, what were the terms of the agreement?
  3. Was there a breach of the agreement?
  4. What damages have been suffered by the aggrieved party?

Was Baldwin induced by fraud?  Was he led to believe that what he was buying was the original painting?  Was he given something different?  It will be interesting to see how this little drama plays out.  I personally sympathize with Mr. Baldwin and believe he should look at any and all possible remedies here.  It is impossible, of course, to come to any definite conclusion from the information that we have now.

We cannot say whose story is correct.  Perhaps both versions have elements of truth.  Perhaps neither does.  Hopefully more will be available soon, as this story is an instructive one.

Why is this story instructive?  Because it shows the continuing relevance of Cicero’s On Duties in our lives.  The whole matter reminds me of an anecdote that readers may recall from the book.  In book III, chapter 14, Cicero tells us the story of a house purchase gone bad.


A man named Caius Canius was a frequent visitor to the city of Syracuse.  He was looking to buy a piece of property there, “where he could invite his friends and relax without having to deal with annoying distractions.”

When word of this intention got around, a Syracusan banker named Pythius contacted Canius and told him that he might have such a waterfront property that he could use.  He also invited Canius to dinner at the house, so he could take a look at it himself.

Pythius also craftily asked local fishermen to pretend to fish off the shore of the waterfront property, so that Canius might think that the waters were abundant in fish.  The fishermen did as asked, and the dinner between the two men went well.  Pythius also represented that the fishing in the area was very good, and that the villa had a freshwater spring.

Canius immediately became anxious to buy the house.  The papers were drawn up to do just this, and the money changed hands.  All seemed to be well.  When Canius came to occupy the property, he found it stripped of most amenities, so that “not even an oarlock” remained.

He went to speak to a neighbor, and from him found out that the waters off the shoreline were not, in fact, very good fishing.  Canius was understandably furious.

Cicero tells us that commercial fraud is “a condition arising when certain representations have been proffered, but something materially different has been delivered.”  Cicero goes on to tell us that:

Pythius, therefore, and all others who say one thing but do another, are morally corrupt, perfidious, and deceitful.  No deed that they do can be considered expedient, since their actions are poisoned with underhandedness.

We can easily see from all this how, even after more than 2000 years, Cicero’s discussions of these issues are more relevant today than ever before.

You can find out more about the timeless lessons of On Duties by clicking here.