|By Eric C. Rodenberg
BEVERLY, Mass. – An imperial jade-hilted Chinese sword - which sold for $1.4 million at a 2012 auction - was stolen by an Asian antiques and arts specialist from a prominent East Coast auction house and put up for sale in his newly-created auction gallery, according to a lawsuit filed in a Massachusetts court.
In addition to charges of grand larceny, the lawsuit further alleges Kaminski Auction Asian Specialist Benjamin (Yong) Wang not only stole the sword from his company, but also stole his clientele, fraudulently participated in a bid-rigging scheme and defrauded Kaminski clients.
The case was filed in Essex Superior Court in Salem, Mass. in October. Kaminski is asking for more than $440,000 in damages against Wang.
Wang’s attorney, Orestes G. Brown, scoffs at the charges, calling them “patently preposterous and absurd.”
The 53-year-old Wang, who was born and raised in mainland China, maintains he had the permission of the sword’s owner to sell it after Frank Kaminski, owner of Kaminski Auction, failed to present it at auction in 2011.
Wang avers that Kaminski “stiffed” him.
In a court affidavit, Wang contends Kaminski Auctions grossed about $7.6 million in Asian antique auctions during his tenure with the company, and that he was not paid nearly $200,000 in earned commissions.
“Kaminski made commissions of approximately 35 to 40 percent on these auctions and never paid me a dime of any profits, commissions or bonuses that he agreed to pay me,” Wang maintains.
Kaminski counters that Wang is inflating the figures, and that he only suspended his Asian specialist’s commissions after he received information from sources that Wang was stealing from him. “I continued to pay his daily wages and expenses,” Kaminski says.
The court battle is in its early stages of development. Kaminski, who employed Wang between October 2011 and Sept. 25, 2012, maintains Wang has done “irreparable and substantial harm” to his company.
“It’s frustrating,” Kaminski said. “We have been trying to get them (Wang and Altair) deposed for months now, and they keep stalling … they use one excuse after another. It’s pretty obvious what is going on … I wouldn’t have gone through the time and expense - and believe me, there are some real court expenses here - if I didn’t believe I was in the right on this.”
On Wang’s side, attorney Brown denies any “stonewalling” tactics. “Right now, we’re just getting into the discovery - the tedious, laborious part of the case. We’ve scheduled depositions in a couple weeks. I admit, it’s been difficult to get everyone together on this; but, I want to get to the bottom of this case as much as anyone else.”
The case finds much of its origins in the recent explosion of the Asian antique market. In the fall of 2011, Kaminski - a fulltime auctioneer for the past 25 years - was looking to expand his company’s “fledgling Asian Antique Art and Antiques department.” Upon encountering Wang at an art fair, Kaminski learned he was fluent in Mandarin Chinese and had studied Chinese arts and antiques at the Institute of Mongolian History from 1983 to 1989.
Shortly afterward, he maintains Wang was hired as Kaminski Auction’s Asian specialist and director of its Asian Department.
Wang, in his affidavit, has a different take: That he would work as an “independent and non-exclusive consultant” appraising Chinese porcelains and antiques “one day a week at a rate of $200 per day.”
At the time, Wang contends Kaminski knew he operated two Chinese antique stores - the Salem Oriental Gallery and Custom House Antiques, both in Salem, Mass.
While associated with the auction house, Kaminski introduced Wang to many of his clients and consignors, paid for trips to network with Asian clients in California and underwrote a trip to China they both went on in May 2012.
In October 2011, Wang called on a San Francisco client, Henry C. Lee, who showed him a Chinese Imperial jade-hilted ceremonial saber and scabbard dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Wang told Lee the sword was authentic and gave it a minimum estimate of $800,000, according to court records.
Lee expressed his desire to sell the sword at Kaminski’s December 2011 Asian Auction but, expressed concerns about paying a 35 percent “withdraw fee,” in case he changed his mind after signing a contract. Wang agreed to remove the fee, Lee states in a court affidavit.
“He (Wang) was not authorized to waive that fee,” Kaminski says. “We never do that. That’s put in place for marketing purpose. You don’t want to go to all this work and expense, and then have someone pull the item at the last minute. Waiving that fee is just not done.”
After taking possession of the sword, Kaminski says he began making preparations for featuring the item on the front cover of the December Asian Arts catalog.
From here, the stories once again diverge.
Kaminski maintains he pulled the sword from the Dec. 8 auction when Lee informed him he did not want the saber sold unless (and until) it could be authenticated.
Wang contends Kaminski doubted the sword’s authenticity and believed it was a reproduction. Kaminski, Wang says, unilaterally made the decision to pull the sword.
And Lee, in an affidavit maintains, “he learned from Mr. Wang that Kaminski doubted the sword’s authenticity and believed it’s a reproduction.”
After the Dec. 8 Asian Arts Auction, the sword remained locked in a safe in the Kaminski Auction warehouse.
Lee remained in contact with Wang. “I contacted Mr. Wang to reiterate to him my Qianlong Sword is not a reproduction, but a genuine Qianlong Sword and should be offered as such,” Lee states in a Jan. 27, 2013, affidavit.
Wang replies to the email on Dec. 19, 2011: “Please email me stating that you want the sword be shipped back unless it can be authenticated as Imperial. This way I can pull the sword out for you. I have located a spot for own business and I will keep posted,” Wang wrote Lee, according to court records.
Kaminski alleges the intent of the email was to inform Lee that he found a location for “his own” auction business, at which he could sell the sword.
In Sept. 15, 2012 - while still employed by Kaminski’s - Altair Auctions conducted its first auction. Altair Auctions lists Benjamin Wang as its treasurer, secretary and director, according to court documents.
On Dec. 15, 2012, Altair Auctions sold Lee’s Imperial sword for $1.4 million.
Kaminski and other employees at Kaminski Auctions claim they thought the sword was in the company safe. Upon learning of the sale at Altair, Kaminski called the Beverly (Mass.) Police Department to file a report.
“Up until then, I thought we had the sword in the safe,” Kaminski says. “But, he not only took the sword, he took all the consignment records … he removed all the documentation. It was sheer luck that we had copies photographed by our photographer; otherwise it would have been all gone.
“We have policies when something is removed. We have the signature of the consignor releasing the item, a return form … but he took everything and then sold it at his auction … no one here knew.”
Kaminski not only alleges that Wang diverted consignors to his “start up” auction house, but also colluded in a bid-rigging scheme with other collectors.
“In addition to pillaging Kaminski from within to foster the growth of his own competitor,” Wang “conspired to frustrate and manipulate the competitive market at Kaminski’s auctions by pooling their bidding efforts and agreeing not to bid against each other.”
Brown bristles at those charges. “In this day and age, with Internet bidding, how can three people influence an auction?” Wang’s attorney asks.