Maurizio Cattelan, best known for his playful and provocative sculptures, is often heralded as one of the most popular and controversial contemporary artists. Yet, in recent headlines, it is not the subject matter of his art but the creation thereof that has caused controversy.
The Italian sculptor is being sued in a Paris court by French sculptor Daniel Druet who claims exclusive authorship of nine sculptures ascribed to Cattelan, including some of Cattelan’s best known works, such as La Nona Ora (1999), Him (2001), and Stephanie (2003). The works in question currently do not credit Druet at all, or merely mention him as a subcontractor.
Druet further claims nearly € 5 million (£ 4.26 million) in damages from Perrotin, Cattelan’s gallery, and la Monnaie de Paris, a museum that staged a major retrospective of Cattelan’s works in 2016 and that, according to Druet, was complicit in the misattribution of the works.
Druet is a sculptor in his own right. He is the artist behind more than 200 wax effigies of celebrities for the Grevin Museum in Paris, the French equivalent of Madame Tussauds.
In the 1990’s, Cattelan approached Druet regarding the creation of several sculptures. While Druet was compensated for his work, the circumstances of the agreement were vague and the terms ill-defined. No contract seems to have been recorded in writing. That leaves it to the law on intellectual property, and authorship in particular, to determine the rightful author(s) of the works.
The parties to the dispute disagree on the level of detail of the instructions given by Cattelan to Druet. The latter claims that he was given vague instructions by Cattelan or his studio, and accordingly that he freely exercised his own artistic intent. Perrotin’s lawyers refuted this claim, noting that detailed instructions were given with “mathematical precision,” and that the finished sculptures by Druet were used as part of larger installations.
In an interview, one of the lawyers representing Perrotin pointed out that the case law determining authorship was outdated and could not accommodate the particularities of conceptual art. A spokesperson of Perrotin added that that this case may determine how the French legal system will treat conceptual art going forward.
Indeed, conceptual art has always posed a challenge to the interpretation of copyright law in most jurisdictions. This is because copyright arises through and only protects expressions, whereas conceptual art mainly, and sometimes even fully, relies on the idea – the ‘concept’ – of an artwork as it exists in the artist’s head before its physical execution. Notably, the most important international legal instruments for copyright protection explicitly exclude ideas, concepts, and methods from its scope of protection.
And while delegating the creation the physical embodiment of an artwork is a practice as old as art itself, and Old Masters and Contemporary artists alike are known to have run workshops with numerous assistants, legal concepts of authorship remain vague, unharmonized, and sometimes non-existent.
According to Cattelan, it would be impossible to always credit everyone who inspired his work. Rather ironically, he believes that the art world should do away with its copyright-reign “where ideas coincide with property”. However, the Courts are unlikely to agree with him.
This case highlights that, in the absence of a clear legal framework and cultural consensus on the meaning of authorship, where artists collaborate with other artists, product manufacturers or indeed anyone else, formally agreeing the rights of each party in a written contract is paramount.
The trial took place on 13 May 2022. It was a one-day trial in Paris, an extraordinarily short trial for a complex issue that in London, would have taken at least five to seven days. The judgment is expected on 8 July 2022. An appeal seems almost inevitable.