“Quasi-industrial” production of Auguste Rodin’s counterfeit works of art

MesurerWhile the free reproduction of works in the public domain is allowed, e.g. Auguste Rodin’s notable sculpture, The Thinker, it is imperative that any such reproduction respects the moral rights of the author. The latter is indeed “perpetual, inalienable and imprescriptible” in accordance with Article L. 121-1 of the French Code de la Propriété Intellectuelle.

One of the most seminal counterfeit lawsuits witnessed in the French legal landscape in the recent years is being tried in the Criminal court – Tribunal correctionnel de Paris. The action is based on counterfeiting and false advertising in relation to the sale of several copies of Rodin sculptures which have since lapsed into the public domain. The judgment has been reserved for November 20. This decision is particularly awaited in the art world as concerns moral rights. Moral rights may be transferred upon death to the heirs of the author or to a third party under the provisions of a will. August Rodin bequeathed all his works to the French government, more precisely to the Musée Rodin which is now holds the moral rights in these works by a  by decree of February 2, 1993. It is in this capacity that the Musée has exercised its rights and filed suit.

Gary Snell, an American businessman, bought plasters of Rodin’s sculptures from merchants, including the Thinker and The Age of Bronze in various dimensions. He then mass-produced a series of copies. According to a court-appointed expert, more than 1,700 copies were sold, thus warranting the qualification of “quasi-industrial” production by the Prosecutor.

In addition, the right to the author’s name was violated as some reproductions flaunted a Rodin signature and sometimes even the mark of the foundry used by Rodin, the Rudier foundry, in lieu of the mark of the Italian foundry which actually manufactured these copies. Yet, according to Article 8 of the Decree of March 3, 1981 on fraud prevention in art and collectibles, “any facsimile, molding, copy or other reproduction of a work of art or a collectible must be designated as such.” Therefore, while reproduction of Rodin’s works is not prohibited under French law, it is imperative that they are clearly identified as such, for the purchaser to take cognizance of the low value of the work – something that was lacking in the present case. Similarly, some of the reproductions were so poor that they were a violation of Rodin’s moral right in respect of his works, which all the more betrayed the artist’s vision. As a result, the Prosecutor argued that these reproductions should be treated as counterfeits under French law.

The argument put forward by the accused party, namely that French law does not apply because the reproductions, according to the latter’s Counsel “were never offered or sold in France,” is inadmissible since the it was established that the copies were advertised on an site that could be accessed from France at the time.

The Prosecutor requested the Court to levy a fine of 150,000 euros on Gruppo Mondiale, a company incorporated in Liechtenstein headed by Gary Snell, and accused of having displayed or sold, the counterfeit works of Rodin which it manufactured on a “quasi industrial” scale, by presenting them as originals. Moreover, the Prosecutor also prayed the Court for a suspended sentence of eight months and a 30,000 euro fine against the businessman. Stay tuned!