Jeff Koons, whose sculptures and paintings have sometimes relied on appropriated imagery, has become known for complicating the meaning of a copy. While it’s usually the artist himself who decides what counts as original and fake in his work, this week it was an Italian court that had what may be the final word on one of the sculptures from his storied “Banality” series, which dates back to the late ’80s.
A court in Milan has ruled that a sculpture of two snake-like creatures that Koons had attempted to claim was an “unsatisfactory prototype” is, in fact, an authentic artwork by him. The Italian publication Corriere della Serra first reported news of the legal saga, which was initiated by an unnamed insurance broker who had bought the work at an auction for 500,000 lire in 1991.
There are three versions in the edition of the work, titled Serpents, according to Corriere della Serra. The collector claims that he owns one of the originals. Koons has attempted to assert otherwise.
The “Banality” series is among Koons’s most celebrated bodies of work. It features a number of sculptures that resemble mass-market tchotchkes, and includes Koons’s famed Michael Jackson and Bubbles piece. A version of Serpents separate from the one at the center of the Italian lawsuit sold at Christie’s in 2019 for $711,000—a small sum compared to the millions of dollars that other works from the series have commanded on the auction block.
The collector said that, in 1997, he had tried to sell Serpents at Christie’s for $100,000. But when the collector sought authentication from Koons, the artist declined to say it was a real work by him. The case made it to a New York court, and Koons reportedly declared that the work was a prototype.
The collector also claims that, later on, in 2014, a Milanese dealer approached him with the hope of buying Serpents. But Koons had reportedly labeled the work an “unsatisfactory prototype,” essentially making it so that the sale could not take place. Frustrated by the impediment to his plans, the collector took Koons to court.
Corriere della Serra reported that Koons could be asked by the court to compensate the collector, who seemed to hint at possible plans to sell Serpents. “Now the work is invaluable,” the collector told the publication. “I want to see what happens. Who knows how the market will receive the news.”
ARTnews has reached out to a spokesperson for Pace Gallery, which represents Koons, for comment.
Koons and his work have perennially become the source of legal drama. Last year, the artist and the Centre Pompidou, which held a retrospective of his work in 2014, lost a plagiarism suit in France over a work from the ’80s that drew on a fashion advertisement. Several months later, Koons faced another lawsuit, this one brought by a man whose stage-like setting for a porn star was appropriated for Koons’s sexually explicit “Made in Heaven” series.
It’s also not the first time a collector has sued Koons. In 2018, Steven Tananbaum sued Koons’s studio and his former gallery, Gagosian, for the non-delivery of sculptures worth millions of dollars. The lawsuit was settled in 2020 for an undisclosed sum.