Another blow for 5Pointz developer who agrees to foot US$2 million legal bill

The property developer who whitewashed the iconic ‘5Pointz’ street art space in Long Island City, Queens, must pay US$2 million (£1.5 million) in legal fees, according to a joint stipulation filed on Tuesday 22 November 2020.

In February 2020, we reported that a New York appeals court upheld a landmark 2018 decision awarding the 5Pointz artists US$6.75 million (£5.2 million) in damages for the destruction of their works. 21 plaintiffs sued real estate developer, Gerald Wolkoff, for violating their rights under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). Their victory is regarded as a milestone in the long battle for the recognition of street artists’ rights.

The 5Pointz site emerged as a haven for street artists after Wolkoff granted permission for them to create their works on the block-long property he purchased on Jackson Avenue in Long Island City in 1971. “I have a certain passion for people in the art business”, Wolkoff told the New York Times in 2004. He said he had no problem with street and aerosol artists leaving their mark on his building “as long as they do it tastefully and don’t endanger themselves”.

Wolkoff’s tune changed when he decided to redevelop the property as condos. The 5Pointz artists sought a restraining order to prevent the destruction of the renowned mural space. Their efforts were thwarted when the site was whitewashed without warning in the middle of a November night in 2013.

The appeals court that upheld the 2018 decision to award damages to the affected artists described the whitewashing as ‘an act of pique and revenge’.

Wolkoff’s Queens real estate company, G&M Realty, sought to overturn the February 2020 award on appeal to the US Supreme Court in July 2020. In its petition, the developer argued that the ruling was ‘dangerous’ and that VARA, which protects works of art from harm is so vague it ‘egregiously’ violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.

The Supreme Court rejected G&M Realty’s petition in October 2020. Wolkoff died in July 2020 but G&M Realty remains liable for the initial 2018 ruling. Now the developer has agreed with attorneys from Eisenberg & Baum LLP who have represented the 5Pointz artists since 2014 to ‘amicably resolve fully the issue of attorneys’ fees and costs’ according to last Tuesday’s stipulation.

Attorney, Eric Baum, stated that the award of US$2 million (£1.5 million) in fees “will encourage attorneys to accept challenging art law cases and ensure that artists will always have access to legal representation to stand up for their rights”. 

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