The Year’s Most Notorious Art Lawsuits

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Civil rulings in New York are marked by their dryness and professionalism. But this can be tossed out the window when the dispute concerns a work of art. One such utterance, by state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick on Wednesday, concerned the current tiff between billionaire collector Ron Perelman and über-gallerist Larry Gagosian. “These two gentlemen ought to get together at a cocktail party in the Hamptons,” her honor ordered, and “see if they can’t get it resolved.”

Jeff Koons, Popeye, 2009-2011.

[Image via Economist.com]

The case before Judge Kapnick’s desk concerned a dispute over Jeff Koons’ sculpture, Popeye, a painting by Cy Twombly, and a sculpture by Richard Serra, worth several millions of dollars apiece. In his original filing, Perelman, a heretofore friend of Gagosian’s, accused his adversary of “undervaluing works when purchasing them, overvaluing them when selling them, and pocketing the substantial differential,” according to The New York Times .

Judge Kapnick’s recommendation, jumped on by the Daily News, seemed to reflect an exasperation with the legal disagreements that have recently come to the public eye. Here’s a brief guide to a few of the year’s biggest.

Artist Robert Indiana

[Image via Bangor Daily News ]

Joao Tovar v. Robert Indiana

The year began with a federal judge in New York, who used severe language when throwing out a case brought to court by collector Joao Tovar of Monaco against the artist Robert Indiana. Beginning in May 2008, Tovar had purchased several sculptures that remixed Indiana’s iconic work, LOVE, which consists of the letters LO and VE in a tidy, three-dimensional square. The work is among the most recognizable (and tritely copied) in the Pop art canon; according to the Bangor Daily News, Indiana was steadfast in refusing to certify the imitations of his sculpture, purchased by Tovar for $1.5 million. Rather, he rushed to disavow them, leaving Tovar with a significant unrealized loss.

“In 2009,” Judge Katherine Forrest read in her January ruling, “the great artist got wind of the lesser artist’s creation of the poor art and made public that he never licensed the poor art’s creation and had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Accordingly the poor art, including any pieces still held by the dealer, plummeted in value.”

A photo by Patrick Cariou, and its adaptation by the artist Richard Prince.

[Image via Artnet]

Patrick Cariou v. Richard Prince

In April, the US District Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a decision of the District Court in Cariou v. Prince, lending a victory, at least for now, to the appropriation artist Richard Prince. The dispute began when in 2008, Prince was sued by photojournalist Patrick Cariou for using several of his pictures of Rastafarians for his own series, titled Canal Zone. Whereas Cariou argued that Prince had added effectively nothing original to the series when he applied bright but scant coloring and shapes to the originals, Prince argued that had had aesthetically repurposed the Cariou photographs, thereby meeting the steady definition for “fair use” established by the Supreme Court. Experts believe the final word on the dispute will have extensive implications for the copyright law, affecting the music and literature fields, in addition to the visual arts.

Cady Noland, OOZEWALD, 1989.

[Image via Artnet]

Marc Jancou v. Cady Noland

In February, gallerist Marc Jancou sued both Sotheby’s and the artist Cady Noland after the auction house pulled a work that he had consigned by the artist from its contemporary day sale this past fall. That same season, Noland’s Oozewald (1989), sold for $6.6 million, setting a new artist’s record. Rumors circulated describing Noland as a fussy vacillator who “disavowed” her work Cowboys Milking (1990) because of crimps in its corners, compelling Sotheby’s to remove it from the sale. Mr. Jancou now claims that Sotheby’s owes him $6 million for his loss in the potential sale, and that Ms. Noland owes him $20 million in additional damages.

Left: Hilma af Klint. Right: Svanen, nr 17, grupp IX/SUW, serie SUW/UW, 1915.

[Image via The Art Newspaper]

Hilma af Klint v. Anders Kumlander et. al.

In early April, Sweden prepared to celebrate in anticipation of the first major retrospective of artist Hilma af Klint at the Moderna Museet, in her home city of Stockholm. Their jubilation was tempered, however, when one of Hilma’s descendants, Johan af Klint, brought serious charges against three members of the Hilma af Klint foundation’s board. Announcing that he had reported Anders Kumlander, Marius Wahl Gran, and Ulf Wagner to the police, Johan told The Art Newspaper that the men “want to use foundation’s assets as well as its good name as a tool for pursuing divergent interests.” His suit alleged that the board members’ ultimate plan was to divert money away from the foundation, and to fund a museum dedicated to anthroposophy, a belief system based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner.

Barbara Kruger, Don’t Be a Jerk, (1984). Screen print.

[Image via Spruethmagers.com]

Supreme v. Leah McSweeney

Last month, founder James Jebbia of the Supreme clothing brand sued designer Leah McSweeney, founder of the Married to the MOB clothing line over merchandise from her “Supreme Bitch” series, arguing that she had unlawfully appropriated their trademark logo. Few observers dispute that the logo was actually an homage to (or theft of) a series by conceptual artist Barbara Kruger. Reflecting on Jebbia’s claim of $10 million in damages, which until that point sounded like an inside-baseball scuffle between fashion competitors, Kruger sent Complex a wordless email with a screenshot from Microsoft Word. “What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers,” the image read. “I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce.”

David Mirvish

[Image courtesy Globe and Mail ]

David Mirvish v. Knoedler & Company

In the last decade, Knoedler & Company represented one of the most powerful names in the New York gallery scene. But in February of this year, when they faced a lawsuit by the Canadian art dealer David Mirvish, the now-closed business seemed overcome by disputes related to the collection of Long Island dealer Glafira Rosales.

In the past, Rosales had brought paintings to market that he claimed were attributable to Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Motherwell. To the dismay of speculators working with Knoedler & Company, a great many turned out to be fakes. In his suit, Mirvish claimed he purchased a stake in three paintings, worth several million each, with the express purpose of reselling them at a profit, with Knoedler & Company as a partner. In his suit, he argued that the gallery breached their responsibilities when they went out of business and refused to reimburse him for his investment.