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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Great article – but heres a secret of the photo market, if you can stand it – go out and buy the BOOK of Eberle’s photos, carefully cut out the page you like, frame it & put it on the wall. Book porbably costs $60.

Posted by Quasimodo3000 | Report as abusive

At 72 and in his sunset years, he’s probaby thinking how the residual honeypot that he’s sitting on will best serve his children and granchildren.

Can’t blame a man for looking after the interests of his family


Posted by CallumW | Report as abusive

Quasi–clearly you’ve never seen a dye-transfer print up close. A book can’t match them. I’m kinda dubious that an inkjet could match them, too. Never mind, I suppose, that the real reason Eggleston can’t make more dye-transfer prints is that the dye-transfer materials just aren’t made anymore. At least Sobel can console himself knowing that his grandchildren will still have his print after the inkjet has faded. (This is why the dye-transfer print will retain value–it is actually preferable).

Felix, console yourself knowing that there are many, many fine photographers out there who will sell you a great print for far less than $15K.

Posted by Moopheus | Report as abusive

Moopheus, art collecting isn’t about owning great art. It is about name dropping and membership in an exclusive club.

That is why Sobel feels wronged. His exclusivity has been violated. Now how is he going to impress his party guests?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I would argue that the advent and growth of digital photography is going to lead to a reduction in the value of “art” photography in general, as it becomes easier and easier for amateurs to take good photographs. I see hundreds of photographs online every month that are as good if not better than what you see hanging on the walls of museums.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

The main question I have is what did Eggleston represent when initially selling a “limited edition” of the prints?
Did he say “I will only make 20 original prints of this image”? Or is he playing the game of the now deceased Kinkade and calling every 1/4 inch difference in size a “new edition”? Kinkade had limited editions approaching 35,000 prints. Is Eggleston now trying to do this?

If I bought a editioned print I would not be happy either to later see ‘new originals’ in a different size unless that had been specified up front.

Posted by LewisNClark | Report as abusive

eggleston’s prices before the christie’s auction were too low compared to the seniority and importance of his work. many regard eggleston as the greatest living photographer in the world. this sale not only helped his family trust raise needed money to continue their important work, and, indeed, may be part of an effort by the artist and his dealers to raise and correct prices to where they should be. keeping prices too low for too long can have a long-range negative effect on an artist’s market and work. re: making larger prints now, no journalist nor lawyer has mentioned eggleston’s actual intention, that no color printing process previously could achieve the quality that eggleston needed when enlarging to the new scale. new digital processes have now made this possible. the new prints are absolutely stunning. their prices may seem high to many, but still seem too low to me when compared with other contemporary photography and art. william eggleston waited decades to get the quality he needed in these large prints, then got pounced on by journalists and moronic collectors who labeled him opportunistic. compared to thousands of other artists who have embraced greed in their production mode, eggleston is not one of them. sobel should be forced to resign his position as board member at the whitney museum, who organized the recent eggleston retrospective.

Posted by dcanyc | Report as abusive

Eggleston’s works may well have been undervalued and his artistic legacy under appreciated; many of his pieces from the 1970′s are among the most iconic images of the American vernacular. However, that does not give him–or his children–the right to return to the archives and reprint his previously editioned and long sold out “greatest hits”.

If you look at the new digital works next to the original dye transfer prints, the only difference you will notice is size. The images are otherwise identical in virtually all respects. Simply because they are printed on an inkjet does not make them different. In fact, inkjet has become a necessity rather than an artistic choice. Dye transfer chemicals are no longer made; Kodak is bankrupt and the technology is obsolete. The world of photography migrated to digital years ago. It is not a new art form.

If Eggleston wanted to make different sizes, he should have made them simultaneously, so there was full disclosure to collectors. If you want the ability to make unlimited copies, don’t take the additional upfront money that limited editions provide by virtue of their being limited. Don’t blame the collector on this one. Why would anyone pay a substantial sum of money for a work of art if an infinite number could be produced?

Posted by nyphotogirl | Report as abusive

W Eggleston is 80 +, living in sheltered accommodation. He is frail and elderly. Any recent decision to reprint images was probably made by his foundation/estate management.
They are doing what our capitalist society determines they should, capitalise on their asset. This has nothing to do with art, everything to do with art brokers.
An infinite number of copies of an image is exactly what modern technology allows which is why B & W prints made by Ansell Adams can command the prices they do.

Posted by photart | Report as abusive