Collector Sues Eggleston Over New Prints of Limited Edition Works

By PDN Editors

A major collector of William Eggleston’s work filed suit against the photographer yesterday in a U.S. District Court in New York City, accusing Eggleston of devaluing his vintage dye-transfer prints by selling new, large-scale pigment prints of those same images. The suit by Jonathan Sobel, a collector who owns more than 190 of Eggleston’s works, was prompted by a March 12, 2012, auction at Christie's of 36 new digital pigment prints of Eggleston’s work. The sale brought in more than $5.9 million.

Sobel, who estimates the value of his Eggleston collection at $3 million-$5 million, is suing the photographer, his two sons and the Eggleston Artistic Trust for unspecified damages, and has asked the court to bar Eggleston from making or selling any more prints of the photographs he has printed and sold previously as limited editions. Sobel says in his claim that he has eight dye-transfer prints that were devalued by the sale of new digital versions at the March 12 auction.

“I feel betrayed,” Sobel told PDN in an interview. “I spent 10 years learning about the work, collecting the work, and appreciating the work. It hangs in my home. I like it. Then they go and make more of it.”

Among the large-size prints sold at the March 12 auction was a print of Eggleston's classic image depicting a child's tricycle from ground level. It fetched $578,500, setting a new record for an Eggleston work sold at auction. Sobel bought a dye-transfer print of the image two years ago for about $250,000.

The case hinges on whether Eggleston was within his rights as an artist to sell his photographs at a new size using a new type of printing. John Cahill, a lawyer for the Eggleston Artistic Trust, told The Wall Street Journal that the artist was within his rights to offer “new editions in new formats.” An official statement from Christie’s echoed Cahill’s assertion, saying “The artworks in question had never before been produced by William Eggleston in this oversized format and printing process, and they are a completely new addition to his oeuvre.”

But Sobel charges that Eggleston and The Eggleston Artistic Trust, which is administered by the photographer and his two sons Winston and William III, willfully violated laws governing limited edition works. Sobel’s suit says that the new works are “identical in image to original photographs which Eggleston had earlier created and designated as individually numbered limited edition works.” Therefore, the suit claims, the new photographs violate New York’s Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, which governs the production of limited edition works.

According to photography dealer and gallerist Robert Mann, who sold Eggleston’s dye-transfer prints in the late 1970s while working with one of the photographer’s original dealers, Sobel is not the only person upset by Eggleston’s decision to offer a new edition of previously sold, limited edition work.

“I understand there are a lot of people out there who are pissed, and I don't blame them,” Mann told PDN. “I've heard that other people are concerned, upset, wondering how this is possible, and what's stopping it from happening again. It's a credibility factor. I would be mortified if I was working with his collection.”

The photographs sold in the Christie’s auction were the first digital pigment prints of an edition of two, sized 44 x 60 inches. Several of the 36 photographs sold during the Christie’s sale had never been printed or sold before. Sobel’s suit is restricted to the eight images he owns that were reproduced at a larger scale for the Christie’s auction.

Sobel says he has no problem with photographers working with unlimited editions, or offering different sizes of a work. "When I buy Lee Friedlander's work, I know he can make a lot more of them and that's disclosed. When I bought Eggleston's work as part of a limited edition, I thought there would be a finite quantity."

According to Mann, the timing of Eggleston’s introduction of a new edition is inappropriate. “If you offer a picture in multiple sizes and multiple editions at the time that you are putting your work out there that's fine, it’s presumably full disclosure,” Mann explains. “But if you decide years later to do something new, and there was no mention or hint of that earlier on, I think in some ways you're betraying your own market.”

But Mann also says the new prints could actually raise the value of Eggleston's vintage work. “They are what he's been represented by for so many years, they are what are in public collections, they are what have been sought after for so long. They're the solid part of this marketplace and I would think their value should be strengthened by all of this.”

After the Christie’s sale, the auction house’s international director for photography, Joshua Holdeman, told PDN that the point of the auction of Eggleston’s new large-scale pigment prints was to establish a new market for Eggleston’s photography in the contemporary art world. “Eggleston has been kind of stuck in the old school world of the photography collectors for a long time, whose primary concerns are about process, print type, print date, etcetera,” Holdeman said. “For contemporary art collectors it’s much more about the object itself—they couldn’t care if it’s a dye transfer or a pigment print or whatever, as long as the object itself is totally amazing, that’s what they care about.”

Holdeman’s point suggests that collectors who value vintage prints will still see the dye transfers as more valuable than the digital pigment prints. Mann agrees, pointing out that the dye transfers are still Eggleston’s “signature pieces.”

But Sobel’s suit argues otherwise, and he points out that independent appraisers, gallerists and other dealers have told him that his prints have likely been devalued. "The commercial value of art is in part determined by scarcity," Sobel points out. The case could refresh the debate about the value of photographs in the context of the art market and feed the old argument that photographs hold lesser value because they can be reproduced in just this manner.

"I'm certainly taking a pause from buying Egglestons," Sobel says. "There was an auction today [at Christie's]. I did not participate, even though there are images I would be interested in adding to my collection."

Related: Eggleston's First-Ever Large Pigment Prints Earn 5.9 Million at Auction

Smaller Editions, Large Prints, High Prices

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