Q&A: Art Collector Jonathan Sobel Explains His Beef with William Eggleston

By David Walker

On Wednesday, photography collector Jonathan Sobel filed suit in federal court in New York against photographer William Eggleston and his artistic trust for selling new digital prints of a number of iconic photographs. The sale took place at Christie's on March 12, and brought $5.9 million for Eggleston's trust, which benefits the photographer and his heirs.

Sobel claims that eight of his vintage Eggleston prints were devalued by the sale of the new digital prints, and he is charging Eggleston with fraud. He claims he had been misled to believe that he was buying vintage prints of limited edition, and that Eggleston violated "the letter and spirit" of a New York law governing limited edition works.

Eggleston has not filed a formal response to the lawsuit, but his attorney told the Wall Street Journal that Eggleston was within his rights to offer “new editions in new formats.”

The dispute boils down to this question: If an artist produces and sells a limited edition of a photographic work, and then re-issues the same image in a different size, or in a different print format or medium, does the re-issue qualify as a separate edition? Or do the new prints breach New York law that defines "limited edition," and therefore defraud the buyers of those original limited edition versions of the work?

The answer could have a significant effect on the photographic print market.  A number of photographers issue limited editions of their works, then later issue new editions of the same works, reprinted at different sizes or in different mediums. The reason is obvious: When an edition sells out, and scarcity drives up the price, artists want to cash in on pent up demand.

While the practice has been tolerated, some gallerists, dealers, and photographers consider it unethical. Sobel's lawsuit could have a very chilling effect on the practice, if he wins his case. In this interview, he explains why he considers Eggleston's actions not just an ethical lapse, but a violation of the law. Sobel's attorney, Georges Lederman, also sat in on the interview.

PDN: I've read your claim, and it sounds like more than just a contract dispute. It sounds personal. Do you feel like Eggleston has bit a hand that feeds him?

Jonathan Sobel: I feel betrayed. I spent 10 years learning abut the work, collecting the work, and appreciating the work. It hangs in my home. I like it. Then they [Eggleston and his sons] go and make more of it. Someone asked me, does it bother you that other people have it? That doesn't bother me at all. Let other people appreciate it it. When I bought these, for example tricycle is an edition of 20, I knew there were 19 others out there, some of which hang in people's homes, some of which hang in museums. I knew that there were multiples, but I thought they were limited multiples. They chose to make a limited edition, presumably because it makes the individual images more valuable. Then when the images ran out, they decided to go and make more.

PDN: John Cahill, the lawyer for the Eggleston Artistic Trust told the Wall Street Journal that Eggleston was within his rights to offer "new editions in new formats." Photographers who do limited editions sometimes offer multiple limited editions, and you're a sophisticated buyer. Didn't you consider that possibility when you bought the vintage dye transfer prints?

JS: No. When I buy Lee Friedlander's work, I know he can make a lot more of them and that's disclosed. [Editor's note: Friedlander doesn't issue limited editions of his work.] When I bought Eggleston's work as part of a limited edition, I thought there would be a finite quantity. Artists frequently make different sizes [editions] at the same time, and it's disclosed. Hiroshi Sugimoto is an example. I've collected his work over the years. For his architectural series, he did small [prints] and large ones. The small ones were I believe editions of 25. I think the large ones were editions of five. But he did them at the same time. As a buyer, I had accurate representations of what he created. What's the purpose of a limited edition if you can make an infinite quantity?

Georges Lederman [Sobel's attorney]: We dispute that response of Mr. Cahill [in the Wall Street Journal], and believe Mr. Eggleston is not within his rights to produce these specific images. In no way are we trying to impact or infringe on the rights of the artist. That's not what this is about. It's about consumer protection.

PDN: Did you try to talk Mr. Eggleston or his sons out of doing this before the March 12 Christie's sale?

JS: The way I found out about it was in The New York Times, four to six weeks before actual sale. Shortly thereafter I did reach out to Cheim & Reid, who was their dealer at the time. I did speak to William Eggleston III and Winston Eggleston [the photographer's sons, and trustees of the Eggleston Artistic Trust.] I was very clear with them. My reaction was immediate.

PDN: Did they make any concessions to you?

JS: None whatsoever that I'm aware of.

PDN: In your claim you said eight of your Eggleston dye transfer prints were worth $850,000 before this March 12 Christie's sale of the digital version of those same images. How much do you think those eight dye transfer prints are worth now?

GL [attorney]: We have an expert witness who will speak to that point.

JS: I will say [the images are worth] less.

PDN: What makes you so sure those vintage dye transfer prints you own were devalued?

JS: In addition to the fact that others have told me that, including independent appraisers, as well as others gallerists and auction house people, intuitively, the commercial value of art is in part determined by scarcity. All things being equal, if you have more of something, they're going to be worth less. If you have 50 of an edition, they'll be worth less than an edition of 25.

PDN: I want to press that a little. Suppose Ferrari or Alfa Romeo made replicas of some of their rare, expensive vintage models. I can't imagine that would devalue the vintage models. What's the difference here?

JS: I am a vintage car collector. What I would say is that the Ferraris were never sold with the representation that they're limited. Every car they made to the best of my knowledge is an open edition. They never represented that they're limited; they just haven't made them in a while. If they wanted to, they could go back and make more, and if they flooded the market with them, I would argue they're worth less. The other thing is, Enzo Ferrari is dead, so [reproductions of vintage models] would be like posthumous works. Eggleston's still alive. The [recent pigment prints] are not posthumous works. Posthumous works tend to sell less than works signed by living artists. Look at Arbus. The posthumous works sell for less than the works by the living artist.

PDN: If I put myself in Eggleston's shoes for a minute, I might think: why should collectors be the only ones earning money from my work and talents? Aren't you being a bit of a grinch to begrudge an artist of some of the rewards of his own name and work?

JS: Absolutely not.

GL [attorney]:
Here is the crux of the issue: Mr. Eggleston earns more money by the designation of the limited edition. The individual who buys the art has to pay more. So the artist directly benefits from that. It is the artist's choice, and you can't change the rules in the middle of the game. In addition, it is because of individuals like [Jonathan Sobel] that artists like Mr. Eggleston are brought to public awareness. Mr Sobel has shown the works generously in museums and has been a supporter of the artist's work. So Mr Eggleston has benefitted by patrons like Mr. Sobel in the purchasing of those limited edition prints at a premium from which Mr. Eggleston himself has financially benefitted more than he would had these works not been noted as limited.

And he sold them and I bought them. He was paid for the works. Part of what I paid for was his representation that they were of limited quantity.

GL [attorney]: We're not trying to infringe on the rights of the artist. He can make a million of them. But if he chooses to denote them as limited, he is bound by that.

PDN: How might this change the way you buy photographs going forward? Are you going to insist on written contracts?

JS: I'm certainly taking a pause from buying Egglestons. There was an auction [at Christie's Thursday, April 5]. I did not participate, even though there are images I would be interested in adding to my collection.

PDN: Are you going to ask for contracts in writing?

JS: It's a fair question. I never thought a contract was needed, because in essence every work has one [a contract]  on it. Every work is numbered as a certain edition size. I believe what the Eggelstons have done is somewhat isolated and wrong. I don't believe every artist behaves this way. I've never had this issue before.

Related Articles:
Collector Sues Eggleston Over New Prints of Limited Edition Works
Eggleston's First-Ever Large Pigment Prints Earn $5.9 Million at Auction 

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