By bringing class-action lawsuits against Louis
Vuitton North America and L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, a Los
Angeles art collector and his attorneys say they are sounding an alarm
on behalf of people who shop for art prints that can cost thousands of
dollars: Let the buyer be savvy, and let the seller beware.
The suits in Los Angeles Superior Court rely on
an obscure chapter of the California Civil Code called the Fine Prints
Act. Together Louis Vuitton and MOCA potentially are liable for millions
of dollars: The law, at Code sections 1740-1745, allows triple damages
for each instance in which a dealer "willfully" fails to provide
documents that vouch for an art print's authenticity.
Neither suit contends that the prints sold by Louis Vuitton and MOCA
were inauthentic -- only that they lacked proper written documentation
and therefore had their value diminished.
In the Vuitton case, plaintiff Clint Arthur says two limited-edition
prints he bought for $6,000 each were signed by Japanese Pop artist
Takashi Murakami but not also numbered by the artist as promised in an
accompanying certificate. MOCA, he says, provided no documentation at
all for two $855 Murakami prints.
Charles Sherman, an artist-appraiser who visited MOCA's museum store on
June 22, said in an affidavit filed with the suit that he was told art
prints did not come with certificates, and that "I would just have to
trust them as far as the authenticity goes."
Arthur, who sued Louis Vuitton on June 23 and MOCA on Monday, said he
discovered the law on the Internet after having misgivings about the
prints he had purchased last winter during the "©Murakami" exhibition at
MOCA's Geffen Contemporary building.
A museum spokeswoman said Wednesday that officials would reserve comment
while reviewing the suit. Meanwhile, Louis Vuitton said in a statement
that Arthur's suit is "baseless litigation," and that he refused the
company's offer of a refund plus interest.
Daniel Engel, one of Arthur's attorneys, said the suits were not about
just one art buyer's losses, but rather a consumer class action on
behalf of all purchasers in a similar position. "What does [a refund for
Arthur] do for all the other people who bought them? It leaves them
The law on fine art prints apparently has been enforced rarely, if ever,
since it went on the books in 1970, but on paper it carries
considerable clout: It specifically authorizes the state attorney
general, district attorneys and city attorneys to bring civil charges
carrying fines of up to $1,000 for each violation.
Louis Vuitton, a luxury-goods purveyor whose parent company reported a
$5.4 billion profit last year, stuck its toe into the art business by
partnering with Murakami to produce limited edition prints of designs he
had made for Vuitton handbags. The prints were sold at a special
boutique set up within the "©Murakami" exhibition to highlight how art
and commerce intersect in Murakami's work.
Plaintiff's attorneys Engel and Matthew Butterick contend that Louis
Vuitton sold as many as 500 prints during the 3 1/2 -month Murakami
show, for a total of $4 million. MOCA, they argue, should be held liable
for any prints it has sold without documentation during the last four
Engel said he wasn't concerned that the public might think the suit was
bullying MOCA, whose alleged errors were ones of omission.
"I don't think it's picking on them. The focus shouldn't be on us; it
should be on whether MOCA is required to obey the law. I think MOCA will
find it's not that hard to comply and set an example."
Dealers such as Sidney Felsen, whose Gemini G.E.L. workshop in L.A. has
published and sold limited edition prints since 1965, and Martin Brown,
veteran sales director of the four-store Village Gallery chain in Orange
County, say that providing the information the law requires is good for
business because it helps build buyers' confidence.
"The customers should know what they're buying," Felsen said.
"A dealer would have to be a darned fool not to provide something in
writing," as the law requires, said Joseph Nuzzolo, a Redondo Beach art
dealer specializing in Salvador Dalí prints. However, Nuzzolo said, the
law on art prints goes only so far in protecting buyers. "Every fake
I've ever seen has had a certificate of authenticity" that also was
phony, he said. Steven Thomas, a Los Angeles art law attorney, said only
"one or two" lawsuits have been litigated under the law, during the
1980s -- although more may have been filed and quickly settled. "Most of
the time it never comes up because people aren't aware of their rights.
It has teeth, but the teeth aren't used."
Based on The Times' initial report on the Louis Vuitton suit, "something
like this could be charged," said Frank Mateljan, spokesman for the Los
Angeles city attorney's office. But he said police have "limited
resources," and that the Los Angeles Police Department's art-crimes unit
has concentrated on outright fraud.
"In this case it's a little more gray, because they are selling
legitimate products but the certificates aren't as picture perfect as
they should be," he said.
By Mike Boehm
For The Los Angeles Times