NEW YORK—Less than a month after Christie’s held a sold-out, $6 million auction of new, large-edition works by photographer William Eggleston (ANL, 3/20/12), a New York financier and collector of Eggleston’s work has filed a lawsuit against the artist, alleging that the value of works he owns have been damaged as a result.
The collector, Jonathan Sobel, alleges that the artist has violated “New York’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Law governing the production of limited edition works.” George Lederman, the attorney representing Sobel, told ARTnewsletter that he believes this is the first lawsuit of its kind. “There hasn’t been any case law to interpret what a limited edition means,” he said. The Eggleston Artistic Trust, Memphis, Tenn., was also named in the suit.
John Cahill, the lawyer for the Eggleston Artistic Trust, said that the new, digital prints are “different than the older dye-transfers, because there was a different process used to produce them.” He added that “Eggleston truly believes” that other alterations in how images were cropped and enlarged “really do change how these images look and are perceived. What Sobel is trying to do is take away from artists the right to control what they create.”
For the works in the Christie’s auction, Eggleston created new sets of limited edition prints of images that had been produced as limited editions decades earlier. The works from the newer group are created on ink-jet printers and measure 60 by 40 inches, more than double the older edition size of 20 by 16 inches that were produced as dye-transfers.
The complaint, which Sobel filed April 3 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, claims that the new limited editions “are the exact same images…and differ only in size and medium.” Sobel says he owns “in excess of 190 Eggleston photographs, which he began collecting on or about 10 years ago,” and contends that “the monetary value and uniqueness of the photographs” he had purchased “have now been substantially diminished” by the new sets of limited editions of some of the same images.
The top lot in the March 12 sale was one of Eggleston’s best-known images, an untitled 1970 color photograph of a tricycle, which sold for $578,000. This image was first published as a limited edition in 1980, jointly by dealers Harry Lunn and Leo Castelli, according to Howard Read, co-owner of New York’s Cheim & Read art gallery, which has represented Eggleston for decades. That edition of 20 copies was at the then customary dye-transfer-paper size of 20-by-16 inches, and they originally sold for $1,500, according to Read. He noted that improved technology and a larger format produced new versions of the sale’s 36 images that Eggleston said he liked better than the earlier works.
According to Sobel’s complaint, he owns nine prints, that have the same images sold in the newer, digital form at Christie’s—including the untitled tricycle—and that the aggregate fair market value of those older prints was $850,000 prior to the March 12 sale.
Josh Holdeman, Christie’s international director of 20th- century art, who organized the March sale, said, “I don’t know of any photographers who haven’t produced multiple editions of the same images.” Holdeman adds: “my definition of limited edition means you can’t produce identical objects.”