Did Sotheby’s breach its consignment agreement with collector Marc Jancou back in 2011 when it gave in to conceptual artist Cady Noland’s demand that her Cowboys Milking 1990 silkscreen print be withdrawn from auction due to damage to the artwork which ultimately led to her disclaiming authorship?
Is the better question whether Cady Noland’s decision to invoke the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990 (VARA) was proper under the circumstances?
Protection to Artist’s Moral Rights
The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 states that “the artist shall have the right to prevent the use of his or her name as the author of the work of visual art in the event of a distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” The lawsuit raises questions about what legal right artists, in fact, have when it comes to disavowing early works.
Suing both Sotheby’s and the artist and seeking a combined $26 million in damages, Jancou claimed that any damage to the work was “slight” and restored by art conservator Christian Scheidemann who stated, “compared to many other aluminum sheets [by Noland] this particular work is in very good condition.” Protesting to the withdrawal of the artwork, Jancou expressed his disbelief in an email, “this is not serious! why does an auction house ask the advise [sic] of an artist that has no gallery representation and has a biased and radical approach to the art market?”
However, the decision reached by a New York state appellate court affirmed in a trial court decision in favor of Sotheby’s in 2013. The decision was based solely on the contract between Sotheby’s and Jancou without consideration to the artwork’s condition or Cady Noland disavowal of her artwork.
To Restore or Not To Restore
That wouldn’t be the last that Cady Noland, one of the most expensive female living artists, would invoke VARA as she sparked another lawsuit in 2015 when she disavowed another one of her works that she claims were restored without her permission. In 2014, art collector Scott Mueller alleged that he agreed to buy Noland’s Log Cabin Blank with Screw Eyes and Cafe Door from the Germany-based Janssen Gallery.
The work suffered from deterioration and damage from being exhibited outdoors for about ten years. As a result, the Gallery had the original logs replaced with the same type of wood and “a new log cabin façade was constructed” by the “original fabricator” using the artist’s “original and exact specifications.”
The contract between Mueller and the Janssen Gallery fully disclosed the work’s restoration. Given Cady Noland’s history with disowning her work, it was even included that the Janssen Gallery would buy the work back from Mueller if the artist “refuses to acknowledge or approve the legitimacy of the work; seeks to disassociate her name from the work; or claims that her moral rights . . . have been violated.”
As foreseen, after Mueller paid $1.4 million to the Gallery, Noland did not approve of the work as she was not consulted about the repairs. Her angry note to Mueller stated, “This is not an artwork” and according to the complaint, Noland “angrily denounced the restoration of the artwork” as “it now consists of unoriginal materials.”
Despite the contract between Mueller and the Janssen Gallery, the Gallery only refunded $600,000 of the purchase price which forced Mueller to sue in the Southern District of New York.
Cady Noland again invoked her rights under VARA by saying “this is not an artwork” and objected the unauthorized conservation and repair. Has Noland who now has become notorious for disavowing her work gone too far? Has she been invoking the rights under VARA responsibility and in the manner that protects the moral rights of artists? Or would these legal conflicts be mitigated in some degree, if the Gallery had informed and consulted the artist Cady Noland before the restoration in the first place?