Louis Vuitton has prevailed in a federal lawsuit by a Los Angeles man who fell out of love with artworks he bought at a controversial boutique set up at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Geffen Contemporary during a 2007-08 retrospective on pop artist Takashi Murakami.
Clint Arthur sued the French luxury goods purveyor in 2008, alleging that it had concealed that Murakami canvases sold in its museum boutique for $6,000 and $10,000 were not created just for the exhibition, as advertised, but made of mass-produced canvas used for handbags.
The case in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles was settled in mid-December; Arthur acknowledged recently that he exchanged the two pieces he had bought for a $12,000 refund, plus interest — what Louis Vuitton had offered before he sued.
His attorney, Daniel Engel, said that when Judge Howard Matz dismissed the suit's allegation of fraud, much of the financial incentive vanished for Arthur to carry on the fight. The judge found that Louis Vuitton's failure to volunteer that the pricey items were repurposed handbag material was not a fraud, because Arthur could have learned the truth had he inquired.
Engel said that other buyers did not join Arthur's intended class action, perhaps because they didn't want to undermine their purchases' resale value. Murakami is known for work that aims to blur the line between art and merchandise.
While tossing the key fraud allegations, Matz had ruled that Arthur could pursue his claim that the sales violated California's Fine Prints Act, which requires dealers in art reproductions to provide detailed information about how they were created. Louis Vuitton acknowledged in court documents that it did not know the Fine Prints Act existed until Arthur sued. Arthur stood to recoup treble damages totaling $36,000 under the Fine Prints Act; Engel said it wasn't worth the time and trouble of trying the case.
But whether Louis Vuitton is really in the clear could be up to government attorneys in Los Angeles and Sacramento: The Fine Prints Act empowers the state attorney general, county district attorney or city attorney to sue whenever it is violated.
The Arthur case file shows that Louis Vuitton earned $1.4 million by selling 214 Murakami works in the MOCA boutique. Under the Fine Prints Act, authorities can collect $1,000 per violation as a civil penalty, plus up to $1,000 per violation in court costs.
While Louis Vuitton's attorneys admitted in court documents that the sales at MOCA did not comply with the Fine Prints Act, they argued that it didn't apply because of the conceptual nature of the work. While Murakami had created them from mass-produced materials, the company contended, each was a unique artwork rather than a reproduction of the sort covered by the Fine Prints Act.
But, noting that the California act applies to "prints … [or] similar art object[s]" that are "produced in more than one copy," Judge Matz found that the Murakami pieces fit the description.
Robert Shapiro, Louis Vuitton's Chicago-based attorney, declined to comment this week when asked whether the company would again argue that each piece was unique, should California authorities sue. Regarding the settlement of Arthur's claim, he said, "we were very satisfied with the outcome."
What Murakami's buyers got for their $6,000 or $10,000 was a swath of mass-printed canvas handbag material costing less than $100, the court file shows. Each had been hand-stapled to identical metal and wood "chassis" that the artist had signed on the back
Filed with the case was a 2007 e-mail Murakami had sent to Yves Carcelle, chief executive of Louis Vuitton, in which the artist proposed creating "a new product" for the MOCA exhibition — an artwork to be "based on the realities of production" that would "reference" the hot-selling handbags on which he and Louis Vuitton already had collaborated.
Putting the boutique inside the museum, Murakami wrote, would "incorporate the 'act of selling' into the exhibition as a performance; which I believe is a scandalous act unthinkable at any other art exhibition."