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Bankrupt former son-in-law of Bernie Ecclestone loses court battle over centuries-old painting

A bankrupt British socialite who is the former son-in-law of Bernie Ecclestone has lost a High Court battle over ownership of a centuries-old painting.

James Stunt tried to distance himself from the ownership of The Cheeke Sisters, an artwork by Sir Anthony Van Dyck worth around £4million, in a dispute with the trustees in his bankruptcy.

Stunt, and father Geoffrey, claimed that the latter bought the painting for £600,000 in 2013. James told the court he had “an interest” in the painting but that “it was not for me”.

James Stunt arrives at the Rolls Building in London for the trial in March (PA Wire)
James Stunt arrives at the Rolls Building in London for the trial in March (PA Wire)

He added: “It was negotiated fully by my father and my father paid by cheque.”

However, in a ruling on Friday, Judge Clive Jones dismissed the duo’s claims and ruled that the painting should be classed as belonging to James as part of his bankruptcy.

He said: “In my judgment on the balance of probability, Mr James Stunt was the contracting buyer. He did not hold the beneficial interest on trust for his father.

Geoffrey Stunt, the father of James Stunt arrives, at the Rolls Building, in London (Victoria Jones/PA Wire)
Geoffrey Stunt, the father of James Stunt arrives, at the Rolls Building, in London (Victoria Jones/PA Wire)

“The fact that Mr Geoffrey Stunt paid by cheque was taken into consideration when reaching that conclusion. The painting forms part of the bankruptcy estate.”

James was previously married to Petra Ecclestone, the daughter of former Formula 1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone. The pair divorced in 2017, with James declared bankrupt in June 2019.

The three-day trial heard from Joseph Curl KC, representing the trustees, that James Stunt purchased the painting, which is now valued at up to £4 million, but Geoffrey later claimed ownership of it.

The court heard that this represented a “significant injustice” to the trustees and that the painting should be considered part of James’ bankruptcy estate.

James Stunt arrives with partner Helena Robinson at the Rolls Building in London (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)
James Stunt arrives with partner Helena Robinson at the Rolls Building in London (Victoria Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Mr Curl told the court that the art company that sold the painting believed James “became and was always intended to be the owner of the painting”.

Giving evidence, James said that despite initially showing an “interest” in the painting, he declined to buy it as he was “rather saturated by Van Dycks at the time”, estimating he had purchased around 40 works by the artist in his life.

James described the portrait to his father as “very spectacular” but said the artwork was “fully negotiated” by Geoffrey, who owned the item, James said.

“I did not purchase this painting. It was my father’s painting,” he told the court.

Lee Schama, representing Geoffrey, told the court that the artwork was bought “by and for” him.

James was previously married to Petra Ecclestone, the daughter of former Formula 1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone (pictured). The pair divorced in 2017. (PA Wire)
James was previously married to Petra Ecclestone, the daughter of former Formula 1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone (pictured). The pair divorced in 2017. (PA Wire)

But in his judgment, Judge Jones said that while the money used to pay for the painting was drawn on Geoffrey’s account, James was able to use his father’s bank card for “very substantial sums” and that Geoffrey was a “generous, supportive father who assisted his son through loans”.

He added that the pair had failed to demonstrate the artwork was not intended for James.

The judge said: “The fact that he (Geoffrey) made loans would not mean this could not be a personal investment but the point is that he simply has not advanced a case to rebut the presumption by addressing any of these matters.”

Van Dyck was born in modern-day Belgium and came to work in England in 1632 at the invitation of King Charles I.

The Cheeke Sisters: Essex, Countess of Manchester and Anne, Lady Rich was painted around 1640 and is one of a small collection of double portraits painted by Van Dyck.

The artist was born in modern-day Belgium and came to work in England in 1632 at the invitation of King Charles I.

Additional reporting by PA