Is it possible to create a new photograph from an old negative? That’s the question at the center of a bitter legal dispute between collector Jonathan Sobel and photographer William Eggleston. On April 4, Sobel filed a complaint against the artist in federal court, alleging 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.
“The commercial value of art is scarcity, and if you make more of something, it becomes less valuable,” said Sobel, who owns 190 Eggleston works worth an estimated $3 to $5 million. “I feel betrayed.” The Whitney Museum trustee and former Goldman Sachs executive is a committed collector of Eggleston’s work: He frequently lends photographs from his collection to museum exhibitions and even helped finance the photographer’s 2008 retrospective. But if he had known Eggleston would someday make digital reprints of works from his collection, he never would have bought them in the first place, he said.
When Eggleston decided to print his photographs in limited editions in the 1970s and 1980s, digital technology didn’t exist yet. But according to Eggleston’s lawyer, John Cahill, the artist has the right to explore this new medium today — even if he is only using it to make larger versions of earlier, limited-edition photographs. “A limited edition is a collection of physical objects, but the artist owns the copyright for the image itself,” Cahill told ARTINFO. “There is no law that prevents an artist from creating additional works with the same image.” (Cahill also noted that with few exceptions, Eggleston almost never sold his works as "'limited editions' per se," but rather would print images depending on his resources and artistic inclination at the time.)
The Christie’s sale featured 36 poster-size, digital prints of images that Eggleston had shot in the Mississippi Delta more than 30 years ago. Some, like a wistful image of a car trunk, were created from negatives he had never printed before, while others were based on iconic works, such as the famous “Memphis (Tricycle).” Sobel owns a 17-inch version of that photograph — he told the Wall Street Journal he bought it two years ago from a collector for roughly $250,000. Last month, the 5-foot-wide digital version sold at Christie’s for $578,500, the highest price ever paid at auction for an Eggleston photograph. By the time the sale was over, digital versions accounted for seven of the artist’s top 10 prices.
It is, of course, too soon to determine whether the large-format prints will indeed decrease the value of the original photographs, as Sobel fears. On Thursday, one of the original dye transfer prints of “Untitled (Peaches)” — a 1973 photograph of a painted “Peaches” sign perched on a tin roof — sold at Christie’s for $242,500, well over the high estimate of $90,000. (The five-foot digital version sold in March for $422,500.) Seven of 15 Eggleston prints in Thursday’s sale, however, were withdrawn before the sale.
This isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of these digital images either. In October, Cheim & Read will present a selection at the next Frieze Art Fair in London. Gagosian Beverly Hills is also planning an exhibition of the digital works.
Though it’s too early to discern the market outcome, lawyers say Sobel’s case hinges on a different question: Are the digital works different from the original prints? In a statement, Christie’s called the digitals “a completely new addition” to Eggleston’s oeuvre; the house's photography specialist told PDN they were marketed as works of contemporary art designed to appeal to contemporary art collectors, not photography traditionalists. But Sobel’s lawyer disagrees: “They think making it bigger makes it different, but that’s not true,” said Thomas Danziger.
Photography dealers have a different take. “Clients are cognizant of the difference between dye transfer prints and digital prints. They have a very different appeal,” Julie Saul, president of an eponymous photography gallery in Chelsea, told ARTINFO. “Eggleston's work is all about color, and the dyes have a richness you don't get in other kinds of prints. It is my understanding that the dye transfer process is the most archival of the color processes.”
Perhaps Sobel’s claim is more interesting as an ontological question than a legal one. What does it mean to create a new work of art in the digital age? According to Virginia Rutledge, an art historian and consultant to Eggleston’s legal counsel, the vintage and digital prints “are entirely different, as objects — viewers experience these prints quite differently, and the market clearly has placed a high value on both experiences.” In today's plugged-in world, audiences frequently see images of artwork reproduced online and believe “they've 'got it,' but that is reducing the artwork to merely an image. These new prints are an affirmation that the particular tangible expression of an idea, the physical life of an artwork, has a unique power."