Unlike most of the French in Hong Kong, Mathieu Ticolat did not heed the call of an August shutdown. Instead of taking his summer holiday, the art dealer has been trying to get back the nearly US$1.4 million he paid for a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin that never arrived.

The convoluted drama surrounding the deal serves as a reminder of just how secretive the high-end art market can be. The case, which involves at least three Asian parties, is not unusual in that both buyer and seller were unaware of each other’s identity. They dealt through third parties who were also kept in the dark about who the other was acting for.

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The art market is ripe for the kind of technological disruption that would see blockchain supported digital ledgers of ownership. That, though, would not help those caught up in this dispute, which pitches the Hong Kong businessman against Angela Gulbenkian, a London-based dealer who married into the Gulbenkian family, a branch of which owns an extensive art collection in Portugal. Gulbenkian denies any wrongdoing.

Ticolat, who runs Art Incorporated with co-owner Kyoko Tamura from an office in Duddell Street, Central, transferred US$1.375 million in May last year to Gulbenkian’s London bank account to buy the 2012 sculpture by Kusama, a Japanese contemporary artist.

“I had not dealt with [Angela Gulbenkian] before but I was assured by the family name,” Ticolat says. (The well-known Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, in Lisbon, has since denied having links with her.)

Art Incorporated was acting on behalf of a collector in Asia; Gulbenkian for an unnamed seller.

Ticolat says he was assured of authenticity of ownership when he received a detailed condition report with photographs showing the sculpture sitting in a Geneva warehouse. According to the pre-sale agreement, the seller would send the sculpture to Hong Kong upon receipt of payment.

That did not happen, and when Ticolat complained, he says Gulbenkian blamed delays in restorations, her summer schedule and, later, the fact that the owner was having second thoughts about selling the sculpture to a dealer.

Ticolat proceeded to hire Christopher Marinello, chief executive of Art Recovery International and an expert in recovering missing art, and made reports to the police in Hong Kong and London. He also began a High Court civil action in the British capital.

Then, in June of this year, Ticolat heard from a law firm representing a Singapore-based company called Artseen – which may be the owner of the pumpkin, or may be an inter­mediary. Ticolat’s payment, he was advised, had never reached Artseen, so the company had terminated its relationship with Gulbenkian and sold the sculpture elsewhere in November.

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The High Court granted Ticolat’s application to freeze Gulbenkian’s assets and on July 28, an agreement was reached that Ticolat would drop the case if Gulbenkian paid back the money in full, plus costs, by August 20. She consented, according to signed documents seen by The Collector, but the deadline came and went without payment.

Gulbenkian has yet to file a defence with the High Court and has not been interviewed by London police. She tells The Collector, in an email, that the “very generous” settlement agreement remains in place as far as she is concerned, and accuses Ticolat and Marinello of “using the media to blackmail me”.

“We are not even having any trial!” she writes. The two men are behind a spiteful campaign to sully her family name and her business, she adds.

Gulbenkian says that she is bound by a “gag clause”, which Ticolat says expired along with the August 20 deadline, and so she refuses to address his claims.

“Businesses can fall out and I for myself will draw a line under this chapter success­fully very soon and will continue collecting art and will continue helping upcoming artists as I always did and I always will,” she says.

Ticolat and Marinello are studying Gulbenkian’s bank transactions, which they obtained via a court order, in a bid to track down Ticolat’s money. He and his lawyers in London are calling for the police to arrest Gulbenkian.

Alexander Platon, an independent art adviser active in Hong Kong, with no links to the case, says buyers and their agents should insist on inspecting the actual artwork, to ensure that the seller’s representatives have access to it. He warns against responding to email solicitations and to be wary of middlemen who claim an owner refuses to allow the actual artwork to be viewed until payment is received. And always, he says, use an independent escrow service to synchronise payment and delivery.