Authorship

Spanish artist faces authorship lawsuit

The artist Antonio de Felipe, arguably Spain’s most established contemporary Pop artist, is facing one of the most challenging moments of his career: Fumiko Negishi, a Japanese artist based in Spain, has launched a lawsuit claiming she has painted 221 canvases signed by De Felipe.

Negishi said she worked at De Felipe’s Madrid studio for over 10 years, from 2006 until this past February, when she received a letter of dismissal citing financial reasons. Upon her dismissal, she felt that the artist did not respect her work or had any sympathy towards her situation, so she decided to tell her story.

She is not only telling her story to the Spanish media, but also to a judge. In the lawsuit, she demands that de Felipe “admits the truthful facts regarding the authorship of the paintings” and tells collectors and institutions that have purchased said works that Negishi is their author, or at least co-author.

She also demands that de Felipe rectify statements he made in media outlets claiming to be the sole author of his works, with no mention of Negishi’s contributions.

Meanwhile, de Felipe deny the claims: “[Negishi] has intervened in some areas of my paintings, but the intellectual authorship of the works is mine. Fumiko has not contributed anything to them,” De Felipe said, accusing Negishi of being disloyal and adding that she’s only “a studio assistant, like all artists have.”

Negishi, meanwhile, claims she executed the 221 paintings from scratch, based on sketches De Felipe had given to her. Negishi adds that those sketches were done by Photoshop, not by the artist’s hand, and that on occasions not even a sketch was provided as a starting point, only a photograph or an idea. Except for the original sketches, and adding his signature to the finished works, “De Felipe did not touch those paintings,” Negishi states.

Negishi’s current lawsuit doesn’t include a monetary compensation, but could be followed up with a subsequent legal process where it would be demanded.

Caveat emptor: why the art world is a legal landmine

It is a privilege afforded to lawyers to observe the problems faced by individuals, families and trustees in respect of their assets and seek to find solutions. Disputes concerning art, antiquities and cultural assets – sometimes more colourful and interesting than the object in question – can be particularly emotive.

One aspect that differentiates the market for art and antiquities from the trade in other valuable assets is that it is largely unregulated; anyone can buy and sell freely without having to comply with any prescribed formal requirements. As the value of such assets increase and the stakes get higher, so does the potential for things to go wrong. This can lead to interesting issues concerning, provenance, attribution, legal title and forgeries (to name a few examples).

The provenance and attribution of an artwork or antiquity are often key considerations. A connection to a well-known historic collection, or authorship by a renowned artist or maker can enhance desirability and thus add significant value. Of course, the reverse is also true in cases where the provenance or attribution turn out to be incorrect.

One can imagine the disappointment of finding out, as one of our client’s did, that artworks, which had been sold as being by a highly regarded artist whose works were in a European royal collection, were actually by a minor artist of no significance and worth many times less than the price paid.

Navigating between fact and ‘sales puff’ can often be a challenge. Does a statement that an artwork is of exceptional quality mean that it is unusually good, or is this just a statement of opinion by the seller? Buyers of art have to be cautious about readily accepting statements made about it. Even pre-eminent experts can sometimes have differing opinions. Matters such as attribution, and the physical condition of an artwork can be difficult to assess when restoration and underlying issues are not always visible to the untrained eye.

The case of Thwaytes v Sotheby’s provides a noteworthy example. Mr Thwaytes consigned a painting, The Cardsharps, to Sotheby’s for sale by auction, putting them on notice that it may be a work by the renowned old master, Caravaggio. Sotheby’s experts examined the painting, but took the view that it was a copy by an unknown artist. The picture could, of course, have sold for many multiples of the sale price had it been sold as a work by Caravaggio.

The buyer, a renowned art scholar, later identified the picture as being an autograph copy by Caravaggio himself. Mr Thwaytes sued Sotheby’s for negligence, but was unsuccessful; the court found that Sotheby’s had not breached their duty since there was nothing that would have been visible on a visual inspection that should have counteracted Sotheby’s view that the painting did not have Caravaggio ‘potential’. The case illustrates just how subjective authenticating a work of art can be.

Unscrupulous sellers - of which, unfortunately, there are a few around - will often make grandiose statements about the artworks/antiquities they are selling in order to secure a sale. It is, therefore, vital for any buyer to make sure that the object being sold is what it purports to be, or at least ensure that there is adequate protection in place should things go wrong.