Collector sues artist over reproduction

August 30, 1992|By Melissa Morrison | Melissa Morrison,Dallas Morning News

It may be an art-world first: An art collector is suing a sculptor for reproducing her own work.

Dallas collector Frank Ribelin filed the suit last month against artist Beverly Pepper. In it, Mr. Ribelin claims that "Ternana Wedge," a cast-iron sculpture he commissioned from Ms. Pepper and for which he paid $90,000, lost value when she created a copy of the piece for the Smithsonian Institution.

Ms. Pepper's New York gallery owner, Andre Emmerich, who is also named in the suit, says the pieces differ in size and texture -- that, in fact, they are variations on a theme, a concept that artists, including Degas (with his ballet dancers), have frequently employed.

An original, by definition, is the first and only piece of its kind. Yet artists have routinely created more than one version of a work. Several versions of Rodin's "The Thinker" exist. Louise Bourgeois, a sculptor who will represent the United States at the next Venice Biennale in 1993, has created identical sculptures. Frederic Remington's "Bronco Buster" is the largest edition ever done by an American sculptor -- more than 150 were cast, according to Rick Stewart, a curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.

So which is the "original"? All of them, according to Sue Graze, an independent curator and consultant and former curator of contemporary art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

"Whether it's a three-dimensional object or lithographs, the idea of an edition is to make multiple originals," says Ms. Graze, who has not reviewed the Ribelin case. "The unique thing is the edition itself. The concept is unique."

In his lawsuit, Mr. Ribelin alleges that he and Ms. Pepper agreed that his "Ternana Wedge" would not be duplicated. Most editions are numbered, so the buyer is aware of the existence of other originals.

According to Mr. Ribelin's suit, Ms. Pepper cast at least one other "Ternana Wedge" and sold it to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art for the casting cost of $10,000. Mr. Ribelin is asking for at least $80,000 in damages -- the difference between the prices he and the Smithsonian paid.

The suit also raises the question of who decides when to make more editions. Is it the collector, who commissioned the piece and paid for it? Or the artist, who originated the concept and directed its creation?

Copyright law is usually invoked to resolve the question. Artists have routinely copyrighted their work. A copyright allows an artist to decide when and how many images to make.

But the Frank Ribelin case probes new territory.

"One thing that's interesting about the case is that apparently copyright law is not going to be involved. There's no copyright on this that we know of," says Michael G. Wimer, the attorney representing Mr. Ribelin.

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