Lawsuit over Murakami-Louis Vuitton prints

LEGAL ACTION: Limited edition Murakami-Louis Vuitton bags -- on display last year at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA -- are now the subject of a lawsuit.
LEGAL ACTION: Limited edition Murakami-Louis Vuitton bags -- on display last year at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA -- are now the subject of a lawsuit.
(Ken Hively, Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A luxury boutique in the middle of an art exhibition was supposed to be controversial -- but not a legal matter.

The temporary retail space allowed in October by the Museum of Contemporary Art has become the center of litigation, though. A class action suit brought Monday by an L.A. collector alleges that Louis Vuitton failed to take the law into account when selling limited-edition prints by Japanese Pop artist Takashi Murakami at his show at the museum’s Geffen Contemporary.

Since 1970, California law has required dealers who sell limited-edition prints of artists’ work to disclose an array of information supporting the prints’ authenticity. The suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by lead plaintiff Clint Arthur says that because Louis Vuitton North America failed to provide sufficient information, 500 Murakami prints that were on sale for an average of $8,000 lacked the ironclad certification required, making them less valuable for resale. The show -- Vuitton store included -- is now at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

The California law allows triple damages for violations, exposing Louis Vuitton to a potential multimillion-dollar liability. The suit, brought by Reseda attorney Daniel E. Engel, does not name Murakami or MOCA as defendants.

A MOCA spokeswoman declined to comment Tuesday, noting that the boutique was strictly a Vuitton operation under its unusual agreement with the museum -- which was meant to highlight how Murakami straddles the worlds of fine art and commerce. Vuitton officials in New York and at Murakami’s U.S. company, Kaikai Kiki, did not return calls by midafternoon Tuesday.

Arthur, who owns a company that sells gourmet butter to restaurants, said he was so enthralled by the Murakami exhibition that he sprang for two prints at $6,000 each. But he said Tuesday that he “had a weird feeling” after noticing that the two works didn’t deliver what their paper certificates promised: “This artwork is signed and numbered by the artist on the chassis.”

Instead, a photo supplied by Arthur shows one chassis -- a metal backing for the canvas print -- containing only a dark M-shaped squiggle. Arthur said there was no numbering on the pieces to vouch that they were each 18th in a series of 100. He searched for more information on the Internet and came across Sections 1740 to 1745 of the California Civil Code, with its array of guidelines for dealers in “multiples.”

“I’m hoping that this really is a Murakami,” Arthur said. “I would love for him to put the number on the work, the way it should be.” Even if that were to happen, Arthur and Engel said, Vuitton should pay for ignoring the legal fine print.

When Arthur contacted Louis Vuitton, his attorney said, he was told “it is what it is, they weren’t going to change the status quo.”