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Gold or Not? Scenery or Forgery? Art Reproductions Created for Film

by Mia Tomijima

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“Woman in Gold” (2015)adapts for the big screen the story of Maria Altmann (1916-2011) and her legal battle against the Government of Austria to return five Gustav Klimt masterpieces on display in Vienna’s Belvedere Museum, which were taken from her family by the Nazis during World War II. Austria shipped the paintings to the U.S. in 2006, where they were first put on display in Los Angeles and then sold at auction, with the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) being purchased by Ronald Lauder to be put on display at the Neue Galerie in New York City.

This and other films featuring priceless works of art begs the question, what does a film company do when it wants to include works of art in movies. In making “Woman in Gold” what did the director, Simon Curtis, have to do recreate scenes of the paintings as they were in Austria? Did he borrow the artworks that were filmed? After all, even if the current location of an artwork is known, it is simply too costly to move a multimillion-dollar work of art around the world just for filming purposes. Its movie magic of course! The art reproduced for this and other films is meant to fool the eyes of millions of moviegoers, and looks so real that, if released into the general public, it could potentially pass as a forgery. While the reproductions in this instance will likely be kept under lock and key in storage after the film wraps, other artists and foundations have gone to greater lengths to protect their copyrights when their works are depicted on film.

As an example, the 1996 film “Basquiat” depicted the work of many famous artists including Picasso and Warhol. Director Julian Schnabel, a painter himself who had close friendships with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, wanted the art in the film to be as true to life as possible. Unfortunately, the Basquiat estate refused to give reproduction permission, instead demanding an exorbitant fee that would have made the film impossible. As a result, all of the paintings shown in the movie were created “in the style of” Basquiat, with an attorney for the estate verifying each piece as acceptable. Schnabel also convinced Picasso’s estate to allow him to create a reproduction of “Guernica” (1937) for the movie, but in exchange agreed to destroy the work immediately after and send video proof of destruction. The story of the making of the “Basquiat” film shows how artists and estates may protect their interests while still allowing some flexibility for allowing inclusion of art in the medium of film.

The film industry has a long history of creating reproductions of art for set backgrounds. Films featuring fine art have grown more and more prevalent in the past two decades. As this trend has grown, so have increased the copyright lawsuits over artists’ rights and complicated rights clearance processes with staggering monetary demands and unique instructions for the creation and destruction of the art.

Lawsuits over art depicted in two films in the 1990’s caused film companies to change their policies over rights and permissions forever. Artist Frederick E. Hart brought suit against Warner Brothers for showing a sculpture in a final scene of the movie “Devil’s Advocate” (1997), which was strikingly similar to his “Ex Nihilo” (1982), which is displayed at the Washington National Cathedral. The movie not only allegedly infringed his copyright, but also distorted the artist’s intent of portraying God’s beautiful creation of humans, not, as it was in the film, coming to life in a demonic scene of lust. After a federal judge found that Hart was likely to succeed, Warner Brothers reached a settlement, agreeing to cut and change the ending of the film before video release and also add a sticker to the 475,000 unedited versions of the film already released that disclaimed any affiliation to the artist’s sculpture, a likely difficult but necessary end to the case.

Similarly, artist Lebbeus Woods sued Universal Studios, Atlas Entertainment, director Terry Gilliam, and production designer Jeffrey Beecroft, alleging that the film “12 Monkeys” (1995) ripped off his drawing entitled “Neomechanical Tower” (1987). Woods was upset about the violation of his copyright and also the distortion of his artistic intent. In granting a preliminary injunction, the Court asked Universal to pull all copies of the already released film (an enormous expense) but Universal instead agreed to settle for a six figure sum to keep it in. These costly legal battles and settlements changed the way that production companies handle art used in films to be more cautious and to seek permission from copyright holders up front.

These cases, among others, raise issues of how to truthfully depict the past in film while still respecting the rights of artists over their creative works. Media companies, now more than ever, must check with their art departments and ensure that rights clearances are obtained for any concepts or images that may be sourced from outside. Solutions as creative as the art depicted must be sought to permit audience enjoyment on all levels. As for the reproductions in “Woman in Gold,” created by scenic artist Steven Mitchell, under the production design of Jim Clay, no information is available at present as to their fate.

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Note from the editors:

On April 13th, Center for Art Law continued its film-viewing series “You’ve Been Served” with “Woman In Gold.” While attendees did comment on the casting choices (unforgettable Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and debonair Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg), nobody objected to the quality or mere fact of art reproductions. In addition to the Klimt paintings, the film features many other artworks that were or might have been a part of the Altmann’s family collection, including for example Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’sPrinzen Esterhazy mit weißem Kaninchen in einer Landschaft” (1827), which was taken from the Bloch-Bauer’s that Hitler intended to hang in his Führermuseum. The film was well received and praised for its ability to explain the value of restitution that transcends the art market value and aims to fix some of the tragic losses suffered by families and nations during under the Nazi rule and World War II.

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*About the Author: Mia Tomijima is a recent graduate of Brooklyn Law School, where she received a certificate in intellectual property and served as Chair of the Art Law Association. She received a bachelor’s degree in art history from UCLA, and has worked with museums, auction houses, and other arts non-profits. Mia is a post-graduate fellow with Center for Art Law.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice. Any opinions contained herein are of the author’s alone and are not a substitute for seeking outside legal representation.