Judge Rules William Eggleston Can Clone His Own Work, Rebuffing Angry Collector

Judge Rules William Eggleston Can Clone His Own Work, Rebuffing Angry Collector
Detail of William Eggleston, "Untitled," 1970
(© Christie's Images LTD )

Photographers across the country can breathe a sigh of relief. The U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York dismissed collector Jonathan Sobel’s lawsuit against photographer William Eggleston. The case, art law experts say, has broader implications for all artists who incorporate old photographic negatives into new work — and the collectors who support them.

Filed last April, the complaint alleged that Eggleston diluted the value of Sobel’s collection by printing larger, digital versions of some of his best-known works and then selling them for record prices at Christie’s.

On Thursday, March 28, judge Deborah Batts dismissed Sobel’s complaint on all four counts (fraudulent misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, and promissory estoppel). “Although both the Limited Edition works and the Subsequent Edition works were produced from the same images, they are markedly different,” Batts wrote in her 20-page decision.

The lawsuit was spurred by Christie’s sale last March of 36 poster-size, digital prints of images that Eggleston had shot in the Mississippi Delta more than 30 years ago. Some were created from negatives he had never printed before, while others were based on iconic works, such as “Memphis (Tricycle).” (Sobel owns a 17-inch version of that photograph, for which he reportedly paid $250,000.) The sale was a massive success — by the time it was over, the large digital works accounted for seven of the artist’s top 10 prices. (The five-foot “Tricycle” came in on top, selling for a record $578,500.)

For Sobel, who owns 190 Eggleston works, the success of the sale was part of the problem. “The commercial value of art is scarcity, and if you make more of something, it becomes less valuable,” he told ARTINFO last April.

The judge disagreed. Egggleston may have profited from the Christie’s sale, she concluded, but not at Sobel’s expense. Eggleston could be held liable only if he created new editions of the limited-edition works in Sobel’s collection using the same dye-transfer process he used for the originals — a move that would directly deflate their value. In this case, however, Eggleston was using a new digital process to produce what she deemed a new body of work. 

“The decision is important because it confirms that artists who work in multiples will continue to have the right to use the images that they create,” Eggleston’s lawyer John Cahill of Lynn Cahill LLP, told ARTINFO in an e-mail. Virginia Rutledge, art lawyer and advisor and consultant to Eggleston's legal counsel, added that “the decision is right on the New York law, and is an important affirmation that artists are entitled to continue to work with images that they create to produce new editions. This is good news for artists, and their audiences.”

Sobel’s lawyer Thomas Danziger did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Through a representative, Sobel told ARTINFO: While the judge has given her opinion, we respectfully disagree with it and we do not think it is fair or equitable for photography or print collectors.” Though he did not specify whether he plans to file an appeal — in her decision, the judge denied his request to amend the existing complaint — Sobel seems determined to have the last word. We have become aware of potential new facts in our case as a result of a suit that has been filed in Tennessee, and we are reviewing that information at this time,” he said.