Artist wins court battle to stop luxury watchmakers from cutting up his painting

On Monday, the Danish court prohibited two watchmakers from destroying a painting to make a collection of luxury watches. Altering the artwork and reintroducing it for sale in the public domain without the permission of the artist, Tal R, was held to have violated Danish copyright law.

Describing the scheme as “disrespectful”, Tal R believed that the pair were simply attempting “to make money and get attention by making a product out of my art.” Art experts have since praised the ruling as a victory against the abuse of artworks for commercial purposes.

Born in Israel and based in Copenhagen, the contemporary artist obtained an injunction against two Northern Germanic watch sellers, Dann Thorleifsson and Arne Leivsgard.

In August, the business partners purchased the bright and stylised ‘Paris Chic’ painting by Tal R for £70,000 at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London. They had planned to make between 200 and 300 luxury watches from the painting by cutting out sections of the canvas to embellish the faces.

We needed an artist that was esteemed by experts because we also needed to get a reaction,” explained Thorleifsson. “If we just took a $100 canvas, no one would really care. It needed to be a true masterpiece.”

Each watch would have been sold for at least 10,000 Danish krone (£1,150), potentially making the duo up to five times more than the painting’s original purchase price. One buyer even offered 41,000 Danish krone (£4,678) for a chance to own a unique timepiece.

The pieces will be so small that it will not possible [sic] to know in any way which work it is from,” proposed Heidi Højmark Helveg, who represented Thorleifsson and Leivsgard. “Each watch will take just 0.04% of the original work.”

But Højmark Helveg’s argument that the watches were independent artworks because they altered the painting failed at Copenhagen’s maritime and commercial court. Since the watches were marketed on the website as specifically “having Tal R’s painting as background”, they would breach copyright law if produced.

We and Tal R hope it will mark the end of this case and that it will mean that Tal R and his fellow artists may avoid similar disputes in the future,” announced the artist’s lawyer, Jørgen Permin.

Manufacturing the watches is now forbidden, and Thorleifsson and Leivsgard will need to pay 31,550 Danish krone (£3,600) in legal costs. The court also confirmed that Tal R’s artistic standing had been misused for commercial gain, which threatened to damage his reputation.

It’s not the best verdict for us,” admitted Thorleifsson. “There had been a lot of examples discussed in court, but they painted it as very black and white.” Thorleifsson and Leivsgard have yet to decide whether to appeal the judgment or seek to reach a settlement.

Whilst the artist acknowledged that his works could be sold on or even be destroyed by their owners, his lawyer revealed that “he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that tearing up his art in this manner would be art itself. He really wishes this had never happened.”

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