Art fraud lawsuit against Louis Vuitton over Murakami prints to go forward [updated]
Clint Arthur will get his day in court after all, in a class action claim that Louis Vuitton defrauded him and hundreds of others by repurposing leftover handbag material and selling it as fine art prints by pop artist Takashi Murakami.
U.S. District Court Judge A. Howard Matz on Wednesday denied Louis Vuitton’s motion to have Arthur’s suit dismissed, and set a pretrial conference for Aug. 24. The decision contradicted one reached in April by William Highberger, a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court, who threw out a similar but separate suit that Arthur had brought against L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Arthur’s attorneys have estimated that the luxury goods purveyor took in as much as $4 million selling prints at a special boutique it had set up at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary building, in the middle of a 2007-08 exhibition of Murakami’s work. With treble damages provided by law, millions more could be at stake.
“I’m thrilled,” Arthur, a Los Angeles art collector and manufacturer of gourmet butter, said Friday when reached at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he was viewing interior furnishings by Frank Lloyd Wright. “I always knew that we would prevail in this, and I’m very gratified that the judge sees it our way.”
Louis Vuitton issued a statement saying it is "surprised and disappointed" by the ruling. "We intend to vigorously defend ourselves against this baseless litigation."
The Louis Vuitton case concerns two prints Arthur bought for $6,000 each at the special boutique. The separate case against MOCA involved three Murakami prints that he bought for $2,655 from the regular museum shop on Grand Avenue.
In both cases, Arthur contended that the sellers violated California’s Fine Prints Act, which requires dealers in limited-edition art reproductions to certify their authenticity and provide information about how many prints exist, and how they were created.
In the case against MOCA, Arthur alleged that he and untold numbers of others who have bought prints from the museum over the years had not received certificates required by law, and were therefore entitled not only to proper certificates, but to treble damages that the Fine Prints Act provides for “willful” violations. But Highberger found that Arthur lost his standing to sue when he refused to accept MOCA’s offer of a refund. “To allow a purchaser to both keep his allegedly defective purchase and to get his money back ... rewards opportunistic litigation (of which this case is a prime example),” the judge wrote in his ruling.
But Matz, considering the same issue, decided the opposite was true: The Fine Prints Act, Matz wrote, “focuses not on what a purchaser must do,” but on whether the art dealer’s conduct prior to a refund offer had violated the act’s provisions.
In addition to trying to get the case thrown out because Arthur had not returned his prints for an offered refund plus interest, Louis Vuitton’s attorneys had argued that there were no grounds for a fraud claim, because he should have known that he was getting handbags remade into expensive art prints. Accessories with similar patterns were on display in the same boutique, they noted in court pleadings, and Arthur was aware that Murakami is famed for his blurring of the lines between art and commercial products.
Matz ruled that the nature of the prints and Louis Vuitton’s honesty or deceitfulness in characterizing them as limited-edition artworks are issues of fact to be determined in a trial.
One of Arthur’s attorneys, Daniel Engel, said it’s uncertain whether he’ll try to question Murakami in a pretrial deposition; he said he is eager to depose Paul Schimmel, MOCA’s chief curator, “because I would think the curator would know what happened.” In a news clipping already entered in the case file, Schimmel told an interviewer from the journal ArtInfo that he was “surprised” Murakami created limited edition art prints sold at the boutique out of fabrics for Louis Vuitton products he had designed. Allowing a retailer to set up shop inside an art exhibition was a rare, if not unprecedented move that MOCA intended to underscore how Murakami straddles lines between art and commerce. Now a jury may be asked to decide whether Murakami’s creative process for the prints was, in legal terms, a fraud. MOCA may not be out of the woods entirely, Engel said: If it becomes clear that the museum was aware a fraud was being perpetrated by a business operation it invited on the premises, and did nothing to stop it, it could be drawn into the case and face legal liability.
Arthur said in April that he planned to appeal the dismissal of his Superior Court case against MOCA, but Engel said that last week he filed a notice that Arthur would not appeal. Arthur achieved two of his main objectives in that suit, the attorney said — getting a proper certificate for the prints, and prodding MOCA’s store to comply with the Fine Prints Act.
Arthur said the Murakami prints involved in both cases still hang on his walls; he would rather keep the prints from MOCA than take the museum’s refund offer.
“I love the art of Takashi Murakami,” he said, adding that his appreciation hasn’t dimmed because of what he considers wrongdoing in the way the Louis Vuitton prints were created, advertised and sold. “I love the images. What I don’t like is the deceit behind the work.”
-- Mike Boehm
Photo: Clint Arthur. top, with his two $6,000 Murakami-Louis Vuitton prints. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times.
Photo: Murakami-Louis Vuitton tote bag sold at MOCA exhibition boutique. Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times
Photo: Display inside the Murakami-Louis Vuitton boutique at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times
[Update: In an earlier version of this story, Daniel Engel's last name was incorrectly spelled "Engle"; also, in an earlier version, the initial quote from Clint Arthur used "edified" instead of "gratified"]