Lawsuits against Louis Vuitton, MOCA about papers, not art

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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 hanging.”

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 years.

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.