What would the art world be without a salacious lawsuit every few months?
While the selling off of great collections and the arrival of little-known artists can draw worldwide attention, a lawsuit can sometimes lead to a restructuring of how art is even made.
This year saw a slew of legal drama unfold in the courts. Inigo Philbrick, a budding secondary market impresario, was sentenced harshly (and justly) to dissuade future hucksters from toying with the art market while Top 200 collectors Steve Wynn and Ken Griffin fought with varying arms of the US government. And of course let us not forget the trolls: Ryder Ripps took on the Bored Apes (literally) and Kanye “Ye” West took on history, decency, and a small gallery in Miami.
But these cases are not merely entertainment. A lawsuit between the Andy Warhol Foundation and the photographer Lynn Goldsmith has reached all the way to the Supreme Court. It could have wide and long lasting repercussions for the the way a generation of artists approach their practice.
Below, for your reading pleasure, the ten most interesting art-centered legal cases of 2022.
Ryder Ripps…off the Bored Apes
As the NFT craze hit a fever pitch in early 2022, the conceptual artist and creative director (or high troll of the art world, depending on your stance) Ryder Ripps took aim at NFT collection Bored Ape Yacht Club, and its parent company Yuga Labs.
In January, Ripps launched gordongoner.com, a website named after BAYC cofounder Wiley Aronow’s handle, and posted about what he believed to be connections between the visuals and language in BAYC and those in Nazi and white supremacist messaging. Yuga Labs quickly denied the accusations.
Then, in May, Ripps released RR/BAYC, an NFT project that ripped imagery and names directly from BAYC as a kind of conceptual art protest. A month later Yuga Labs sued Ripps for a handful of offences, including trademark infringement. Ripps claims he was merely appropriating the apes and that the lawsuit, which is an attempt to stop him from shining a light on BAYC’s alleged neo-Nazi roots. In December, a judge denied Ripp’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and the case may head to trial in 2023.
Death and Taxes: Ken Griffin Sues IRS
Ken Griffin, billionaire art collector and founder of the hedge fund Citadel, sued the Internal Revenue Service in December after his income tax records were published by ProPublica earlier this year.
The records were used in a story detailing the average annual income, percent of income deducted, and average effective federal income tax rate for 400 of the richest Americans between 2013 and 2018. Griffin claims the IRS federal agency violated his right to privacy and is responsible for the “unlawful disclosure” of his tax and income information thanks to a “willful and intentional failure” of security and confidentiality.
A spokesperson for Griffin told ProPublica the tax rates presented in its investigative report “significantly understate” what the billionaire pays, because the rate was lowered by charitable contributions and does not reflect local and state taxes. Griffin, an ARTNews Top 200 collector, spent $54 million in 2020 to fight a proposed Illinois tax plan that would have significantly hiked taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents. As a result of the amendment failing to pass, Griffin saved $51 million per year based on his past income, ProPublica reported in July.
Inigo Philbrick: All About the Benjamins
From jet-setting and six-figure wristwatches to going on the lam in the South Pacific and pleading guilty to wire fraud, the story of Inigo Philbrick, the art world’s mini-Madoff, shows how quickly one can plummet.
Philbrick began his career at White Cube, where he served as the head of secondary sales. But, in 2013, he opened his own gallery. Within a few years, he’d reported $130 million in revenue. But the reality of Philbrick’s business was less glamourous.
In 2019, as the market for his artists began to flounder, Philbrick was of accused of using faked records to conduct his transactions, allegedly even listing a “stolen identity as the seller” on a contract and selling works without first telling the rightful owners. In October 2019, he defaulted on a $14m loan and fled the US for the Pacific island of Vanuatu, just before multiple lawsuits against him became public.
In June 2020, Philbrick was arrested in Vanuatu and, less than a year later, he pled guilty to wire fraud and identity theft charges in a court in the Southern District of New York. When the judge asked for a reason for the fraud, Philbrick said “For the money, your honor.”
In May Philbrick was sentenced to seven years in prison, ordered to forfeit more than $86m, make restitution to those he defrauded, and give up interest in two works, one by Christopher Wool and another by Wade Guyton.
Pace Gallery: A Tale of Two Suits
Mega gallery Pace has been on both sides of the docket this year.
In May, the gallery filed suit against Jean-Pierre Seurat, who in November 2021 sold the gallery an 1882 conté crayon drawing titled Le Suiveur (The Follower) which depicts a man and woman ambling on a French boulevard, for $2 million. Seurat said the painting was by his “grandfather” Georges Seurat. After the sale, the gallery learned that Seurat had no grandchildren.
According to the lawsuit, fine art consultant and dealer Constance H. Schwartz allegedly sent a PDF to Pace in August 2021 containing fake images of Le Suiveur in a frame and documents that appeared to prove its authenticity. Among the documents, the lawsuit says, were provenance papers claiming that the drawing originated from the collection of Félix Fénéon, the famed French critic and collector who championed young avant-garde artists such as Seurat, Henri Matisse, and Paul Signac.
The lawsuit was filed in the New York Supreme Court on May 10. With “willful malice and abuse and intent to damage,” the lawsuit alleges, Jean-Pierre Seurat and his associates provided Pace with “false, misleading, and irrelevant” documents to attest to the drawing’s authenticity.
Then, in December, a completely different matter was put to rest after a Southern District of New York jury awarded one of New York City’s largest real estate firms, CBRE, $6.3 million in damages after Pace failed to pay the brokerage more than $3 million in commissions for advising the gallery during negotiations with the building’s owner, Weinberg Properties (WP), to redevelop the gallery’s flagship space at 540 West 25th Street.
Kanye West does Miami
As if rampant antisemitism with a dash of Hitler-praising and generally troubling behavior wasn’t enough, Kayne West is being sued by Surface Area, a gallery space and showroom near the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami. The gallery claims that West, who now goes by “Ye”, owes them over $145,000 for the “reservation, customization, and use of its rental space as a recording studio.”
According to court documents, Surface Area alleges that Ye and his team agreed to rent out the gallery space on January 5 for the remainder of the month at a rate of $5,000 a day, plus moving expenses of $20,000 and chair rentals. All costs were approved by Steven Victor and Laurence Chandler, Ye’s manager and general manager, respectively. However, based on the court documents, at the end of the month, Ye and his team moved out of the space, and “the Defendant has failed to pay any amounts whatsoever to the Plaintiff,” the complaint reads.
The Troubled Life of Peter Max
The battle for the body and soul of Pop Art maestro Peter Max has been as taut as a freshly stretched canvas. Once, he held court with and painted portraits of Mick Jagger, Taylor Swift, Bill Clinton, and Barak Obama. Now, according to multiple publications, Max is embattled by lawsuits in which friends, relatives, and business partners allege they can best take care of the artist and his legacy. Meanwhile, Max himself remains unheard from, a victim of Alzheimer’s-related dementia in his Upper East Side apartment.
In 2015, Max was placed under a court-appointed guardianship at the request of his-then wife, Mary Max, nee Balkin. According to a lawsuit filed by Max’s daughter Libra Max, as his condition worsened, his guardian, the attorney Barbara Lissner, inflicted her father with “crippling emotional trauma” due to “isolation” and “medical neglect.” The complaint alleges that Lissner is a “financial predator” for billing the Max Estate $550 an hour, to the tune of about $2 million, and that Lissner has barred Libra Max from taking her father to a pulmonologist for his respiratory problems.
In 2019, The New York Times published an exposé that detailed the alleged crimes against Max by his guardian and the exploitation of his weakened state by business associates for financial gain. A few days after the story was published, Balkin committed suicide.
“My father should never have been put into a guardianship in the first place, and he should not be in one now,” Libra Max, who is suing to end the guardianship, told Rolling Stone. “[He] has a loving daughter, me, and he has been begging for me to come care for him, just as my father did for his own father. It is our family culture to care for our own.”
Warhol and Prince, Two Originals
On October 12, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case between lawyers for the Andy Warhol Foundation (AWF) and photographer Lynn Goldsmith that could change the definition of fair use, and thus fundmentally change contemporary art-making.
In 1981, Newsweek commissioned Goldsmith, a celebrated portraitist, to photograph the musician Prince. The magazine ultimately didn’t use the photos and Goldsmith retained the license. A few years later, in 1984, Vanity Fair paid Goldsmith a $400 licensing fee to use the portrait for the cover of their November issue, which was to be designed by Andy Warhol. Despite the license being for a single use, Warhol produced a whole series of Prince images based on Goldsmith’s photo. The Prince series wasn’t made public until 2016 when AWF licensed one of the works to Condé Nast, which owns Vanity Fair, for use in the magazine after Prince’s death.
Warhol copyrighted the Prince series, which has made hundreds of millions in reproduction sales.
Goldsmith claims she should have been paid a licensing fee for the Prince series. AWF claims the series falls under “fair use,” which the U.S. Copyright Office says, “promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances.” The court will have to decide whether Warhol’s work was “transformative” enough from Goldstein’s original to be considered to have new meaning.
AWF supporters, like media attorney Paul Syznol, say a decision in Goldsmith’s favor would be catastrophic, potentially ending the practice of art appropriation.
Sotheby’s 'Sells the First NFT'
Sotheby’s made headlines last year when it sold Kevin McCoy’s Quantum (2014), which some have said is the first-ever NFT, for $1.47 million. But, after the sale, a Canadian holdings company called Free Holdings claimed that they own the token and filed a suit against McCoy and Sotheby’s for ownership rights.
The crux of the matter lays in where McCoy minted Quantum, a blockchain called NameCoin that requires owners reclaim their tokens every 250 days. The suit alleges that McCoy had let his ownership expire and the NFT went unclaimed for years.
“While the blockchain records are self-evident, such records cannot defend themselves in the face of concerted efforts by a formative artist and auction house to establish a false narrative concerning what is presumed to be the first NFT,” reads the complaint.
What McCoy sold at the Sotheby’s auction was an Ethereum-based NFT that he had minted of his work, ostensibly transferring rights and ownership to this new NFT. Free Holdings claimed that is not the case.
At stake in the complaint is what it means to truly own something minted using blockchain technology. The protocol is supposed to provide a permanent, indisputable ledger of provenance, but the technicalities of ownership are often muddied by the transfer of content and ownership from one blockchain to another. Because the case is largely without precedent, the eventual ruling could help establish how courts view ownership in the age of blockchain.
Three’s a Crowd: Steve Wynn, China, and the State Department
Art collector and casino mogul Steve Wynn found himself at odds with the U.S. State Department in May, when the government agency sued him for his alleged 2017 effort to obtain a diplomatic favor sought by Chinese authorities to protect his financial interests in Macau. The lawsuit comes nearly a year after the department directed Wynn to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as a lobbyist for China.
Wynn, who ranks on ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors list, has long been an active collector of modern art, amassing major works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In February 2018, Wynn resigned as chairman and chief executive of Wynn Resorts amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
The current dispute alleges that the casino magnate attempted to persuade U.S. officials to extradite the exiled Chinese securities mogul, Guo Wengui, a self-styled whistleblower who fled China in 2014 while facing allegations of corruption. Wengui has been linked to former Trump aide Steve Bannon and has been accused of multiple offenses, including bribery and sexual assault.
A Real Housewives Scandal
This summer, a court ordered Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Erika Jayne and her ex-husband Tom Girardi to give up their art collection and other valuable items to pay off creditors as bankruptcy consumes Girardi’s wealth following a major lawsuit. Girardi allegedly used $25 million of stolen money, laundered through his law firm Keese & Girardi, to provide for Jayne’s lavish lifestyle, and that she allegedly took the money in full knowledge of how he got it.
A large portion of the money was allegedly taken from the victims of the Lion Air Flight 610 plane crash which left 189 people dead after the flawed automation system in the Boeing 737 Max sent the aircraft into an irrecoverable nose dive into the Java Sea.