What to do about someone presenting your artwork as their own?
December 12, 2014 11:29 AM   Subscribe

My best friend just found out that someone bought a bunch of his drawings and paintings online, framed them, and then probably presented them in a 2-person gallery show as their own work...


My friend "X" makes his living selling artwork on Etsy. He sells both original paintings and drawings as well as lower-cost prints. When Googling a buyer's name (which he sometimes does out of curiosity when someone purchases either a significant amount of work, or work that he feels was particularly personal) he discovered the website of a gallery/alternative arts space, with photos from a recent 2-person show. The photos seem to indicate that the buyer framed the pieces, possibly altered the signatures (!!!) (the photos aren't clear enough to make this out conclusively), and displayed them as their own work.

There's nothing to indicate any up-front idea about appropriation in the display; this isn't Richard Prince/Marlboro Man- or Rauschenberg/de Kooning-type commentary—at a glance it seems most likely to be straightforward plagiarism.

In my circle of artist friends we've unfortunately dealt with some similar situations in the past—in most of those instances, however, there has been a more obvious material injustice. When someone submits your work as their own and receives a scholarship or award for it, or has your work shoddily reproduced overseas and offered for sale in a wholesale catalogue, it seems obvious that you need to get your ducks in a row, get legal representation, and aggressively protect your moral rights. This isn't so absolutely clearcut a case, though. It's not apparent that any work was re-sold, and "X" would prefer to respond gently at first instead of going in with guns blazing.

In his words "The work was really personal, so my gut impulse is to call this person out as publicly as possible, humiliate them... but I'm pretty sure that's just being vindictive, and not ultimately a healthy impulse." This morning he sent the buyer a personal message with a link to the gallery's webpage, and a brief "what's up with this?" He hasn't heard anything back yet.

When he explained this to our friends on social media, he mostly got a chorus of outraged incredulity..."Cease all contact and lawyer up!" "Contact the gallery!" "What an asshole! Make them pay!" etc.

Has anyone else dealt with a situation like this firsthand? Are there any particular moral, ethical or legal angles that should be considered here? My friend has said that he would appreciate Metafilter's advice.

(bonus irony: according to their internet presence, the alleged plagiarist is apparently employed as a legal assistant)
posted by drumcorpse to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, if he does lawyer up, he might first apply to the firm that employs the plagiarist.
They couldn't represent him due to conflict of interest, but the cat would be out of the bag at his/her place of work.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:33 AM on December 12, 2014 [10 favorites]


I WOULD call the Gallery and inform them, then I'd ask if they would rep MY work as MY work.

Jeez, the chutzpah of some people.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:35 AM on December 12, 2014 [29 favorites]


Call the gallery first, then go from there. A lawyer might be required, but I'd bet that the gallery would rather quietly take the art down and spread the word in the local community not to display this person's "work."
posted by Etrigan at 11:39 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


Suggestions to contact the gallery are not just outraged incredulity -- they're currently selling plagiarized art, so their reputation is on the line, too. I suspect that giving the gallery a heads-up would likely be the quickest and quietest way of fixing the immediate problem.
posted by jaguar at 11:47 AM on December 12, 2014 [7 favorites]


Call the gallery directly and inform them and provide evidence. They need to know ASAP. Lawyer not required; they'll take it seriously once they see the evidence (Etsy transaction records, etc). They want to know if they sold stolen/incorrectly attributed work.

Lawyers are usually needed if the work is being reproduced commercially (t-shirts with stolen art, etc). He may be able to do this all himself without lawyers.

If your friend has a blog/tumblr/whatever, posts about things like this generally spread like wildfire. This "artist's" name should be connected to this thievery. It's not a grey area, this "artist" is committing fraud.
posted by quince at 11:53 AM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


A few quick clarifications-- I count myself among the outraged and incredulous (well, not totally incredulous. Like I said, this kind of thing happening isn't, sadly, totally out of the ordinary).

The show has come and gone, and the work isn't currently being displayed. The venue doesn't seem like the kind of gallery that survives on their sales commission, but more of a community and/or experimental arts space.

And a comment from "X": "[for me] the moral problem comes with me getting off on exposing the fraud and humiliating the person. It feels justified, but ultimately not the kind of person I want to be? I don't think there's any moral dilemma with sending a cease and desist, etc."
posted by drumcorpse at 12:17 PM on December 12, 2014


Another thing to consider, your friend may want to do a few reverse image searches of the pieces in question to make sure this faker isn't off on the internet elsewhere presenting this work as theirs and further profiting from it.
posted by phunniemee at 12:20 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


The venue doesn't seem like the kind of gallery that survives on their sales commission, but more of a community and/or experimental arts space.

This means, more than anything, that personal contacts and social reputation is even more crucial to the gallery/art space. So:

1) Contact the arts space and ask for a formal apology and statement retracting the work from their show (even if the show has ended).

2) If they refuse to, post it to facebook / twitter / tumblr and call out everyone that the gallery seems to be in contact with -- including previous artists who have previously shown at the gallery (this is important).
posted by suedehead at 12:27 PM on December 12, 2014 [9 favorites]


phunniemee: Some internet sleuthing has turned up a situation that looks like the potential plagiarist also sold another artist's work at a charity auction as their own. The other artist has been notified.
posted by drumcorpse at 12:32 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hi. I saw a lot of shitty "galleries" in Santa Monica and Venice. I also heard of some people taking credit for other's works.

I, by no means, was involved with this culture, but it was commonly known that this type of "plagiarism" is the hallmark of some "galleries". Its all about the $$, not some romantic notion of truth and beauty.

This low-level bullshit continues because people can't afford to combat it. Art is a business, and its just not worth it for people to take up arms with a $50,000 lawyer for a $300 print.

Choose your battles carefully, and remember your friends.

Also, if I were your friend, I'd find out who bought those prints...and if there is a way for him to put his "mark" somewhere so that nobody else can take credit in the future.

Good luck, and my condolences.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:37 PM on December 12, 2014


"The work was really personal, so my gut impulse is to call this person out as publicly as possible, humiliate them... but I'm pretty sure that's just being vindictive, and not ultimately a healthy impulse."

Sigh, another victim of "calling someone out is the worst thing ever and zomgwrong" culture.

No, this is totally clearcut. You outlined reasons why that's the only real path forward here since the gallery doesn't seem to be for profit and isn't displaying it anymore. Just because it feels like "revenge" doesn't make it wrong, or vindictive, or shitty. Publicly calling someone out on their rep is the right thing to do in a lot of situations, and i wish people hadn't gotten so squishy and squicky about it.

Unfortunately they can expect friends or even random other people to go "eww gross" and act like this is some private matter they should have handled with a PM. No. This person chose to make this public and publicly represent themselves as making your friends art. They get to answer for it in public. That isn't some out of line vindictive bs. That attitude only protects people who do crappy things from embarrassment as if it's some crime to make them feel bad. Forget that.
posted by emptythought at 12:39 PM on December 12, 2014 [12 favorites]


He should contact Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts in his state.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:19 PM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


X doesn't need to enjoy opening up the can of whoop-ass, but it should be opened. To let this slide only makes it more likely this person will do it again to someone else.
posted by jon1270 at 1:45 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


The reason people get so pissed at these situations (or, at least, my reason) is that it's never just your work these people steal. They steal over and over and over again and people keep buying into the "oh, mustn't be a bad person" BS, while meanwhile the ripple of the thief's chosen thiefy path keeps hurting other people who are losing work and livelihood.

If you want to be a better person, consider how this person is affecting your community instead of concentrating on how they're just affecting you.
posted by Nyx at 1:47 PM on December 12, 2014 [11 favorites]


"The work was really personal, so my gut impulse is to call this person out as publicly as possible, humiliate them... but I'm pretty sure that's just being vindictive, and not ultimately a healthy impulse."

An unhealthy goal, in my mind, would be to destroy the person.

A healthy goal, in my mind, would be to publicly say, "This happened, and this is not ok," as a way of keeping it from happening again, to this artist or to other artists.

Calling out someone publicly is not automatically vindictive, especially for something that they did publicly. Dragging in unrelated personal information -- they cheated on their partner, you don't find them attractive, their kids have learning disabilities -- is vindictive. Publicly calling out a public action is not vindictive.
posted by jaguar at 2:22 PM on December 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


In his shoes, I would contact the plagiarist (exactly as has been done), contact the gallery to let them know what happened and who did it, respond/correct any remaining publicity (eg if there was a photo on facebook) and then I would not really do much beyond that. I don't see much to be gained, and those in the circle have been alerted which should help prevent it happening again.

I would then turn it into a cool or funny anecdote or portfolio curiosity that reflects positively on myself and the effect of my art in the world.

There don't seem to be many actions that pass the "what do I plan to achieve?" test as useful things to do here, which is actually a good thing, because taking action requires time and effort, and we have better things to do. I think it's ok to say his piece and then let it go, keeping it merely as a weird chapter in the narrative of his work.
posted by anonymisc at 3:08 PM on December 12, 2014


Well, I would totally flip my wig if this happened.

I don't know if your friend belongs to any professional art unions, but membership in them may afford him access to legal counsel and perhaps even interest in publicizing his story and supporting him as an artist.

I think if you're going to be in the business of art it's a good idea to make these kind of contacts, because it will probably happen again in the future. I'm not big on personal confrontation. But sometimes asking for help is a great idea.
posted by phaedon at 4:06 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Maybe the art collector displayed their new purchase in this gallery exhibition. Donating artwork to charity auctions is legitimate. What's your proof of the stolen identity?
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 5:39 PM on December 12, 2014


I think it's entirely reasonable to at least post online that so-and-so bought your work on such-and-such a date, show photos proving you did it before they did (if possible), and that they have been showing your work as their own. Hopefully searching on so-and-so's name will bring up "so and so totally steals work" and at the very least, reasonably hurts their reputation.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:43 PM on December 12, 2014


I'm not an artist, but I've dealt with legal situations in the past.

I would call the gallery as others are suggesting. If the person doesn't want to hire a lawyer that's fine... but it should be politely 'implied' to the gallery that the person is considering lawyering up against the bad guy in some way....even if it's not true. I've often been unpleasantly surprised in the past by how many people will side with the bad guy if they think it's only the bad guy's ass that's on the line and not their own. Once they realize that they themselves might also get in trouble, they tend to be more proactive about not supporting the bad guy anymore. Maybe I've just had bad luck, but I've seen it happen too often. I wouldn't just automatically assume that the gallery will take down the work and blacklist this guy just because they found out he was a plagarist. Hell, he might be dating the gallery owner for all you know.
posted by rancher at 11:15 PM on December 12, 2014


Maybe the art collector displayed their new purchase in this gallery exhibition. Donating artwork to charity auctions is legitimate. What's your proof of the stolen identity?

The artist's statement, also available online, which floridly described the personal meanings embued and methods employed was a reasonable hint. Also, despite this morning's email going unanswered, the accused spent the day deleting photos of the show from publicly visible social media.

In the end, though the suggestion to inquire about a copyright suit with the accused's firm got some good chuckles, for now "X" has settled for contacting the gallery with the proof and a request for any sales records, another personal message to the accused that basically said "You're probably not actually a terrible person, but that was a really stupid and shitty thing to do. Don't make this more difficult than you have to," and a nastygram from his lawyer with some reasonable demands.
posted by drumcorpse at 11:38 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


X doesn't need to enjoy opening up the can of whoop-ass, but it should be opened.

X also doesn't need to not enjoy opening up a can of whup-ass. There are much worse things than feeling a bit gleeful about having the opportunity to tear an asshole another asshole.
posted by flabdablet at 4:23 AM on December 13, 2014 [3 favorites]


« Older Motion-activated video capture in low light?   |   Alternatives to Woody Allen Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.