Once again law defines art

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The celebrated American artist Richard Prince has been ordered to destroy works worth tens of millions of dollars after a court ruled that the paintings, which reworked a series of photographs by the French photographer Patrick Cariou, had breached copyright.

A New York federal court has ruled that Prince and his gallery infringed Cariou’s copyright when he produced a series of works in a 2008 show using 35 pictures from the book Yes, Rasta, published by Cariou in 2000, “in their entirety, or nearly so”.

Prince adapted the Cariou works by adding, in one instance, an electric guitar and some splodges for eyes.

The ruling, which may lead to an appeal, stands to cost Prince and the Gagosian, one of the world’s leading contemporary galleries, with outlets in London and New York, potentially huge sums. Eight of the works from the exhibition, which was entitled Canal Zone, have together sold for more than $10m (£6m). Seven others have been exchanged for other works of art for between $6m and $8m.

Prince has often made a virtue of his appropriation art. His images are sometimes taken from old advertisements in magazines. He told Art Forum magazine in 2003: “I had limited technical skills regarding the camera. Actually, I had no  skills … I used a cheap commercial laboratory to blow up the pictures … I never went in a darkroom.”

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