Grossman LLP | Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over Limited Edition Eggleston Photographs
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  • Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over Limited Edition Eggleston Photographs
    The Southern District of New York recently dismissed a lawsuit by plaintiff Jonathan Sobel concerning his collection of eight photographs by William Eggleston.  Sobel v. Eggleston et al., 12-CV-02551 (S.D.N.Y.).  The case raises a cautionary flag for art collectors who are interested in purchasing photographs and other works that can be produced in “multiples.”

    Over a three-year period, Sobel purchased eight Eggleston photographs, each individually numbered, usually with a fraction, which Sobel claims was an express and implied representation that the photographs were limited-edition works (with the numerator being the specific image in the limited edition, and the denominator indicating the maximum number of images in the edition).  However, defendants subsequently authorized Christie’s to sell eight “reprints” of the same images that Sobel had bought.  The reprints were a different size and were created using a different production method than Sobel’s (the reprints were digitally manufactured from a file or a scanned print, while Sobel’s were believed to be made from Eggleston’s original negatives or slides using a dye transfer process).

    Sobel sued Eggleston individually, and also named as defendants the trustees of the Eggleston Artistic Trust.  Sobel’s claims included violation of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law (ACAL), fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, and promissory estoppel.  He sought money damages as well as an injunction preventing future production and sale of additional images.

    Sobel’s ACAL claim hinged on certain statutory provisions regarding artwork that is offered in “multiples” or “as one of a limited edition.” The court, however, held that numbering a multiple does not create any warranty that would prevent future production of additional editions of a work; in fact, according to the court, the statute seems to contemplate that possibility by requiring that if a multiple “was made from a master which produced a prior limited edition,” that fact must be disclosed to a buyer.  In other words, buyers of the reprints had a right to know of the existence of the earlier limited edition, but for purposes of Sobel’s claim, the numbers on his photographs were only a warranty about the total number of multiples in existence at the time Sobel bought them.

    Likewise, weighing Sobel’s misrepresentation claims in the light most favorable to Sobel, the court held that the fractions on his photographs could be viewed as a representation that the limited edition contained only a certain number of multiples (the denominator), and that Eggleston would not increase that number in the future.  But that representation was not false, the court held:  Eggleston had neither misstated nor increased the number of multiples in the limited edition.  Rather, he produced a whole new edition—the reprints—which differed from Sobel’s limited edition in size and production medium and method.

    The case, demonstrates the importance of seeking expert advice before making a major purchase of artwork.  This is particularly vital when it comes to photographs and other types of art that can be or have been produced in multiples—or might be reproduced in the future.  This means discussing important terms involved in the purchase (for example, “limited editions” and “reprints”), knowing exactly what is being sold, and understanding what warranties and guarantees are (and are not) being made about the work.  Advance diligence can help to set expectations and ensure that a collector can preserve the value and enjoyment of a work now and in the future.
    ATTORNEY: Kate Lucas
    CATEGORIES: Art MarketLegal Developments