Editions or Series: Picking Up The Pieces

A century ago Marcel Duchamp toyed with the idea of creating a box to hold notes and sketches for his works which eventually resulted in The Green Box, 1934, containing notes for the Large Glass, 1915-23.

He produced 300 such boxes. Was each of Duchamp’s box works unique, one of a series, or one of a limited edition? Were answers to these questions important for the artist, the collector and the art market at the time? And are they relevant today? What rights has the owner of a work comprising component parts? Has anyone ever dismembered one of Duchamp’s boxes and sold its constituent pieces? Would anyone consider doing so today? Would it be legal?
Following the Green Box, Duchamp developed ideas for a different box to hold versions of his earlier works – around 69 – including three-dimensional mini-replicas of his sculptures and readymades, and hand-coloured black and white photographs of his paintings. The Centre Pompidou’s description of Duchamp’s production of these works is significant: ‘Between 1935 and 1940, he created a deluxe edition of 20 boxes, each in a brown leather carrying case but with slight variations in design and content. A later edition consisting of six different series was created during the 1950s and 1960s; these eliminated the suitcase, used different colored fabrics for the cover, and altered the number of items inside. Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, or box in a suitcase, is a portable miniature monograph including 69 reproductions of the artist’s own work.’ What is meant by the terms deluxe edition, edition, and series? How many boxes in total?
Owners of these works commonly describe them thus: ‘La boîte-en-valise (Box in a valise), 1936/1968. Paris (1936) – New York (1941). A cardboard box covered in red leather containing miniature replicas of works, 69 photos, and painting facsimiles or reproductions, glued onto black folders. Red leather, cardboard, red fabric, paper, rhodoid (or mica) 40.7 x 38.1 x 10.2 cm.’ The Portland Museum, Oregon does so, and adds ‘Series F, 1941-1966’. So does The Museum of Modern Art, New York, adding ‘IX/XX from Deluxe Edition’ and stating in its archival notes: ‘Duchamp included in each deluxe box one “original”. In The Museum of Modern Art’s Boîte-en-valise, this is a hand-colored print depicting the upper half of Large Glass (1915-23).’

Centre Pompidou emphasises the significance of the hand of the artist as author: ‘In doing so, he created new originals, which he then certified by hand. Coming from the man who invented readymades, this project raises timeless questions about art and about what characterises it. The wealth of objects it contains makes it a work in its own right … What makes it unique is the fact that it contains a myriad of works which are both reproductions and originals. Duchamp, in a nutshell, offers up a little portable museum which ties in with his own circular definition of art (it is the museum that makes art art, but it is art that makes a museum a museum).’

In 2002 Damien Hirst also made box works, each containing 23 of his etchings. The lid of each box was a unique spin painting onto which had been screen-printed the box’s title: In a spin, the action of the world on things. He produced 68 such boxes. Some buyers subsequently dismembered them and re-sold their box-lid spin painting separately from its 23 etchings, others also re-sold the etchings individually. London auction sales in 2009/10 (Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips de Pury) reveal box-lid paintings fetching between £51,650 and £73,250, individual etchings between £2,275 and £3,750; and 23 etchings as a whole fetching more than an individual box-top painting.
In August 2011 John Brandler, a UK dealer in modern British art, tried to consign for auction at Phillips in London one of three Hirst box-lid paintings he had privately bought. It is widely reported that Phillips emailed Brandler thus: ‘Unfortunately, after a discussion with the Hirst studio after our June auction, we are no longer able to sell these works without the accompanying prints … as that is, in their eyes, the complete work … This is a prerogative of the Hirst studio that we must follow.’
In recent media interviews Brandler said, ‘Is this a new thing that the artist has power over the auction house? Hirst and his team are like bullies in the school yard. Every lawyer I’ve spoken to about this says there is no way they’d win in court, but how do you force a saleroom to sell something for you? If you’re Phillips, Christie’s or Sotheby’s, are you going to upset one of the wealthiest people in London?’ These are understandable questions, but require further enquiry.
When Hirst first sold each box, had he signed and numbered each one (as we know he did with every etching within the boxes)? Did Hirst provide every first buyer with a certificate of authenticity attesting his authorship, and specifying that each box and its contents was a complete work and one of a numbered limited edition? Alternatively, did Hirst and the first buyer execute a written contract of sale specifying the same things – and stressing Hirst’s requirement not to dismember the work’s constituent parts for exhibition and/or sale? Did that first buyer execute a written contract of sale with any subsequent buyer specifying the same things; and/or pass on any certificate of authenticity from Hirst – and so on, for subsequent buyers? Did auction houses ask for such documentation during their due diligence provenance-checking process, before accepting consignment of a complete box work and/or any dismembered pieces thereof?
Such questions could also usefully be reversed. Did every first buyer ask Hirst whether the box and its contents was a complete work? Did first buyers ask for a certificate of authenticity and/or a written contract of sale to clarify and confirm accordingly? Did subsequent buyers do likewise – except buyers at auction, who would be guided by the sale catalogue entry?

Envoi. French artist Bernard Buffet was asked in the late 1950s to decorate a refrigerator for a charity auction sale: he painted three front panels, the top, and each side – signing only one of the six components. Some months later an auction catalogue described and illustrated a lot consigned for sale as ‘Still Life with Fruits by Bernard Buffet’: it was one of the refrigerator’s front panels. Buffet sued the consignor/owner of the panel, claiming violation of his statutory moral right of integrity (droit au respect de l’intégrité de l’oeuvre). The court agreed, stopped the sale of the single-panel painting and ordered that the work must not be taken apart – not only when publicly exhibited, but also privately. A landmark artist’s rights decision.

The artist’s statutory moral right of integrity was enacted into UK law in 1989, in the US in 1991, and now in over 160 countries around the world. Moral rights laws for artists and business contract laws operating in the marketplace can be unhappy bedfellows. Although artists now have legal control to halt physical abuse of their works after they have been sold, they also must now face the ethical challenge of asserting such rights at point of first sale, preferably in writing.

© Henry Lydiate 2011

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.