Lensman sues artist Koons over photograph

Artist Jeff Koons with his creation Balloon Dog (Yellow) in a 2014 photograph.
Artist Jeff Koons with his creation Balloon Dog (Yellow) in a 2014 photograph.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Jeff Koons, the American pop artist whose works can fetch millions, is facing allegations that he used a New York photographer's commercial picture from the 1980s in a painting without permission or compensation, according to a lawsuit filed on Monday.

Photographer Mitchel Gray said in the complaint filed in Manhattan federal court that the artist reproduced his photograph, which depicts a man sitting beside a woman painting on a beach with an easel, "nearly unchanged and in its entirety".

He is also suing New York-based auction house Phillips Auctioneers and an as-yet-unnamed former owner of the Koons print, which sold for US$2.04 million in London in 2008.

Neither Koons nor his agent in New York could immediately be reached on Monday.

A spokesman for Phillips Auctioneers said in an e-mail: "We are confident that Phillips has no liability in this matter."

Koons, one of the world's most celebrated contemporary artists, is best known for his colourful paintings, monumental reflective sculptures and inflatable flowers.

His work Balloon Dog (Orange) sold for US$58.4 million (S$82.1 million) in 2013, the highest price for a living artist's work sold at auction.

Gray's photography was published in an advertisement for Gordon's Dry Gin in 1986.

Later that year, the complaint alleged, Koons reproduced the photo in a painting called I Could Go For Something Gordon's. It was part of a series of liquor-themed paintings called Luxury And Degradation.

Gray did not discover Koons' work until July this year, the complaint said.

There is a three-year statute of limitations on copyright actions, but "the clock doesn't start ticking until the plaintiff learns of the infringement", Gray's lawyer Jordan Fletcher said in an interview.

Gray is seeking unspecified damages and any profits the defendants received from the suspected infringement. He said he also deserved punitive damages because the infringement was wilful.

Koons "knew, or should have known, that he was required to obtain an artist's permission before he could lawfully copy a work by that artist", the lawsuit said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2015, with the headline 'Lensman sues artist Koons over photograph'. Subscribe