Why is Jonathan Sobel suing William Eggleston?

By Felix Salmon
April 6, 2012
Kelly Crow, at the WSJ, and PDN have interviews with Jonathan Sobel, a photography collector who is now suing the legendary color photographer William Eggleston.

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Both Kelly Crow, at the WSJ, and PDN have interviews with Jonathan Sobel, a photography collector who is now suing the legendary color photographer William Eggleston. Neither of them actually posts the suit itself, however; you can find it here.

At first glance this looks like what it is: one of the silliest lawsuits the art world has seen in a very long time. In order to win, Sobel will need to demonstrate two things, neither of which is true. Firstly, he’ll have to show that the value of his vintage Eggleston prints has been diminished as a result of Eggleston making a new series of much larger digital prints. And secondly, he’ll have to show that Eggleston had no right to make the new prints.

In reality, however, Sobel’s prints have probably gone up in value, not down, as a result of Eggleston’s splashy reintroduction to the contemporary art market, in the form of a Christie’s sale which raised $5.9 million and set a new record price for the artist. And in any case, Eggleston has every right to create new editions of his work. Sobel owns vintage 16″x20″ dye-transfer prints; Eggleston can’t make more of those. But creating a brand-new series of 44″x60″ digital prints is perfectly fine.

As Daniel Grant explains, print disclosure laws make explicit exceptions for prints of different sizes, or even just series which have different numbering. And Josh Holdeman, Christie’s international director of 20th century art, goes so far as to say that “I don’t know of any photographers who haven’t produced multiple editions of the same images”: this is undoubtedly standard practice in the art and photography world.

So what’s really going on here? Sobel is no naif, and it’s hard to imagine he thinks he really has much of a case. This suit is brought not for money, but out of a sense of being angry and aggrieved; of having his ownership violated

I haven’t talked to Sobel myself, but my feeling is that the motivation behind the suit comes from a few different feelings about what’s going on with the Eggleston market.

First of all, as PDN’s Conor Risch explained in a great article last month, the Christie’s auction was more or less an explicit attempt to wrest the Eggleston market away from photography collectors like Sobel, and reorient it towards deeper-pocketed contemporary art collectors. Here’s Holdeman again:

According to Joshua Holdeman, international director of the Christie’s photography department, the point of the sale was to establish a new market for Eggleston’s photography in the contemporary art world. “Eggleston has been kind of stuck in the old school world of the photography collectors for a long time, whose primary concerns are about process, print type, print date, etcetera,” says Holdeman.

Whereas the type of print and the exact date a print was made is “a huge deal” for photography collectors, Holdeman says, “for contemporary art collectors it’s much more about the object itself—they couldn’t care if it’s a dye transfer or a pigment print or whatever, as long as the object itself is totally amazing, that’s what they care about.”

“This is an attempt to start a migration of Eggleston from the quote unquote confines of the photography world into the larger context of the art world,” Holdeman adds.

This kind of talk is basically a slap in the face to collectors like Sobel — people who are used to being a big fish in the small photography pond, and who now find themselves small fish in the much bigger art pond. The writing has been on the wall since November 2011, when Eggleston officially joined Gagosian in Los Angeles, but the Christie’s auction was probably enough to tip Sobel over the edge.

It’s often a sad day, for photography collectors, when photographers join high-end art galleries and thereby become much more expensive. I can add a personal datapoint here: I’ve long loved Todd Eberle’s photographs of Donald Judd’s art in Marfa, Texas, and there’s one photograph in particular which I was interested in buying. But when I got in touch with Eberle, he told me to talk to Gagosian, since they’re in charge of selling his prints. And Gagosian, in turn, was perfectly happy to sell me a whopping great 50″x60″ print (plus frame) for $15,000. Even if I could afford that kind of money, I don’t have anywhere to put a photograph that big. But Gagosian isn’t selling the prints in the smaller sizes that photography collectors generally like.

The Gagosian announcement and the Christie’s sale, then, were a sign to Sobel that he wasn’t really wanted in the Eggleston world any more. But what’s going on here is not just a question of whether Eggleston is owned by the photography world or by the contemporary-art world. There’s another issue, too: are Eggleston’s images owned by Eggleston, or did he sell them, in some sense, to the people who bought his photographs?

The legal and moral answer to that question is clear: Eggleston’s images are owned by Eggleston. Sobel owns physical photographs, which have some kind of value. But Sobel, unlike Eggleston, has no right to reproduce those images. But after Sobel shelled out $250,000 for “his” photograph, it’s pretty easy to see how he felt some kind of ownership of what he was looking at, and felt that Eggleston had no right to start creating lots more versions of the same image. (In fact, Eggleston didn’t do that: while Sobel’s prints are generally in editions of 20, the new digital prints are in editions of just 2.) Of course, Sobel’s feelings are neither here nor there when it comes to the merits of his lawsuit, but they probably explain why he brought the suit in the first place.

I suspect that what was most galling to Sobel, however, was the fact that Eggleston had simply managed to conjure up $5.9 million for himself (or rather, for his foundation), without going out and shooting a single new photograph. Eggleston is quite explicitly following in the footsteps of Damien Hirst, here: Hirst was the first artist to shamelessly make millions of dollars by consigning new work directly to auction, much to the displeasure of the art world. And as a result, Hirst has gotten to a point where he, Hirst, captures most of the increase in the value of the global Hirst market — and Hirst’s collectors don’t.

What Sobel sees, when he looks at the Christie’s Eggleston auction, is a serious increase in the value of the Eggleston market, with the overwhelming majority of that increase accruing to Eggleston himself, rather than to collectors who were prescient enough to buy early. You can hear the whine quite explicitly in Crow’s article: Sobel used to own the most valuable Egglestons in the world, and he was very proud of that. And now he doesn’t. And he’s upset.

This is all very childish, of course — which is par for the course when it comes to the art world. And somewhere underneath it all, Sobel might even have a legitimate beef. Eggleston is 72 years old, and suddenly, after decades of being a photographic eminence, he’s deserting the photography community and throwing his lot in with Larry Gagosian and the contemporary-art crowd, just because that’s where the money is. Eggleston has had a devoted following in the photography community for a very long time, and his latest move seems designed to annoy his base, which is never a particularly wise thing to do. There might be lots of money in the contemporary world right now, but that world is fickle.

Here’s the thing, though: if the fine-art crowd ever gets sick of Eggleston, the photography crowd will always be there for him. They’re going to keep the Eggleston faith no matter what he does in his old age. Even if they act out sometimes by filing frivolous lawsuits.

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