The U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York recently dismissed collector Jonathan Sobel’s lawsuit against the photographer William Eggleston.
The complaint, filed in April 2012 claimed that the photographer diluted the value of Sobel's collection by printing larger, digital versions of some of his best-known works and then selling them for record prices at Christie’s.
The auction house sold in March 2012, 36 poster-size, digital prints of images that Eggleston had shot in the Mississippi Delta more than 30 years ago, besides others based on iconic works, such as the famous work “Memphis (Tricycle).”
The sale was a huge success: the five-foot “Tricycle” came in on top, selling for a record $578,500 (Sobel owns a 17-inch version of that photograph, for with he paid $250,000.)
The success of such sale of Eggleston's new digital works was a problem for Sobel, who owns 190 Eggleston works. The collector accused Eggleston of devaluing his vintage dye-transfer prints by selling new pigment prints of the same images, since the commercial value of art is based on scarcity, then it would become less valuable with new editions.
But the judge disagreed.
The Judge, Deborah A. Batts rejected Sobel's claim affirming that Eggleston was not in violation of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law.
Article 15 of this NY law states that offering a limited edition constitutes an express warranty that no additional multiples of the same image have been produced.
According to such provision, the judge affirmed that by offering a limited edition, an artist is required by the law to disclose the total number of multiples existing at the time of the sale.
In addition, Eggleston could have been held liable only if he had created new editions of the limited-edition works in Sobel’s collection using the same dye-transfer process he used for the originals. But in this case, however, Eggleston was using a new digital process to produce what the judge deemed a new body of work.
This decision confirms that artists who works in multiples have the right to use the images they create and are entitled to continue to work with such images to produce new editions, as long as they disclose how many multiples of a photograph have been produced at the time they are offering a new edition.