Thursday, May 31, 2012

Court Seeks U.S. Views in Chabad Case that Triggered Russia's Embargo on Art Loans

The federal district court hearing Chabad v. Russian Federation -- the lawsuit that caused Russia to embargo loans of artworks to U.S. museums -- has solicited the U.S. government's views on the latest twist in the case.

The concern stated by the court is that judicial action could jeopardize relations between the two countries -- which are already tense.

The court is therefore seeking the White House's position on whether Russia ought to be held in contempt and ordered to pay monetary sanctions for its refusal to honor the court's default judgment.  That judgment ordered Russia to turn over two separate collections of Jewish-themed and religious books and manuscripts to the Brooklyn, New York-based Jewish sect known as Chabad.

Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy Interests

The court issued its request in response to a motion for sanctions brought by Chabad.  "Because of the serious impact such an order (for sanctions) could have on the foreign policy interests of the United States, this Court finds it  would be helpful to obtain the views of the United  States prior to action on the motion," the court wrote in its May 23 order to the Justice Department.

The request comes at a time of severe political tensions between the U.S. and Russia, with very public disagreements resulting from the recently arrived U.S. Ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, making incendiary remarks in Russia -- and then, in several instances, having to apologize publicly for making them.  McFaul's comments have included calling Russia a "wild country," for example.

Other major diplomatic issues involve Russia's support of the Syrian government.

McFaul, via Twitter, said he is "still learning of craft" of being a diplomat.
Meanwhile, in the now seven-year-old Chabad litigation, the sect is seeking a hoard of books and manuscripts that was nationalized by the Soviet Union in the first years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the government abolished private property.

Standstill in U.S.-Russia Art Loans
Chabad is also seeking a second hoard, which originally belonged to a rabbi who had to leave it behind when he came to the U.S. seeking refuge from the Nazis.   This second hoard was twice taken -- first stolen by the Nazis in Warsaw and then seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II.

Chabad claims it is the rightful owner of both hoards, which it sometimes refers to as a single, "Schneerson," collection.

Russia abandoned the case, saying U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction over it because it is a sovereign nation, and in July 2010 the court issued a default judgment in favor of Chabad.

The art embargo started shortly thereafter and is still in effect.  In response, New York's Metropolitan Museum cancelled scheduled loans to Russia, and now neither U.S. nor Russian institutions are requesting loans from the other.

It has been suggested, by lawyers and others, that the "Russia factor" is behind proposed federal legislation to immunize foreign-government lenders of art from lawsuits based on their loans.

When the U.S. submits its brief on sanctions, it will be the second time the government has entered the case.  Almost a year ago it submitted a statement when Chabad moved to begin attaching Russian property to enforce its judgment.  Then the U.S. urged the court to proceed carefully while reiterating its longstanding support for Chabad.

Text (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Warhol Would Have Asked, and Other Dirty Secrets of Appropriation Art

Warhol Self-Portrait 1986
The dirty secret of "appropriation" art is that many of its most famous practitioners stopped swiping copyrighted works decades ago or decades before they died.

Now, in  the same U.S. appeals court that 20 years ago ruled that Jeff Koons was "sailing under the flag of piracy," Richard Prince is appealing a court decision that he too is flying the pirate's flag.

In his court papers, Prince -- who has described "appropriation" as a "technique for stealing" -- cites as fellow appropriators such artists as Koons, Sherrie Levine, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.  He even includes images of Warhol's and Rauschenberg's work in his brief.  An investigation reveals, though, that these "appropriation" luminaries may have started out as willing or unwitting outlaws, but they quickly learned that taking others' copyrights was legally unwise and expensive, and they stopped.

Koons now seeks permission to use others' work
Koons, for instance, is no longer lifting other people's copyrighted work, according to his attorney, John Koegel.  His client "has learned more about copyright" since defending himself in five infringement suits.  "Where permissions are perceived to be needed, they are sought," he said.

Koons hasn't stopped using copyrighted material -- his "Popeye" series is just one example -- but he now seeks licenses first.  Koegel said that although responses to Koons's requests vary, "hordes of people" have granted permissions, including United Feature Syndicate, which had earlier sued him, and Marvel Comics.

The young Warhol settled three infringement suits brought by photographers in the 1960s, and then started working with rights holders to secure licenses and cut deals.  "Andy wasn't trying to steal," said gallery owner Ronald Feldman, who worked with Warhol on some of his most famous prints.  "He learned a lesson from the lawsuits.  I was always concerned about the rights, as was he."

This is some of what I've uncovered.  For more, read my article in The Art Newspaper here.

Images: Warhol from Christie's 2003 online catalogue.  Photo of Koons from Wikipedia.
Text (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert.