Artists Know -- or Should Know -- the Difference Between a Series and an Edition

A quirky question, but let's ask it anyway: If an artist decided to paint the same picture more than once -- say, Andrew Wyeth chose to do another "Christina's World" -- would that be legal? Paintings are supposed to be unique works of art, after all. The question arises because some artists do become known for a particular image. Collectors want that picture and nothing else will seem to do.

As a matter of law, artists would seem to be in the clear. "As long as the artist owns the copyright to the original, there is no violation of law. There is no law to break," said Donn Zaretsky, a New York City lawyer. Collectors may still be displeased if they find that their painting is not unique but exists elsewhere, he noted, but that is more a failure of their responsibility to do "due diligence" than of the artist to be original. Collectors would likely respond to identical artworks by paying less for each. "This sort of thing is more likely to be policed by the market than by the courts."
In the days before art prints became so widely available, it was not uncommon for artists to simply paint the same image a second or third (or fourth) time, in order that more people could own their work (or to correct an error in the first go-round). Leonardo da Vinci's "Madonna of the Rocks" in London and "Virgin of the Rocks" in Paris have identical compositions but were completed 20 years apart. Even in our own day, well-regarded artists produce pieces that look quite similar, perhaps again so that as many collectors who want a work may acquire one. Think of all the Jim Dine paintings of robes or Picasso's etchings of randy minotaurs or the countless Mark Rothkos with one color on top of another color. It is by a particular style and subject matter that we recognize the work of a specific artist, so pursuing the same theme again and again is not technically redoing a subject but working in a series. The law does not define the word "series," but the art print disclosure laws existing in a majority of states around the country define "limited edition" with reference to multiples.

The only time that an artist might get on the wrong side of the law when painting the same image more than once is if he or she intentionally misled collectors (or dealers) about the uniqueness of a particular artwork. Frank Stella's 1960 painting, "Marquis de Portago," owned by California collectors Donald and Lynn Factor, was damaged in 1963 while on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (the curator walked into the canvas). Stella was asked about restoring it but, after it was returned to his studio, told the museum and collectors that it was beyond repair, so he painted a new version for the Factors. However, he did eventually restore the damaged one, selling it to Massachusetts collectors Ann and Graham Gund in 1965. When the Factors brought their "Marquis de Portago" to the Parke-Bernet auction house in 1970, they discovered that theirs was not the only version in existence -- in fact, there was also a third. The Factors sought a reserve price at the auction of $35,000 but, because of the other similar paintings, the reserve was lowered to $15,000, and their Stella sold for only $17,000. They brought a lawsuit against the artist, which had a mixed result, finding the Stella negligent in informing the Factors of what he had done yet assessing no damages.