Jeff Koons has lost a legal battle against a 74-year-old Italian insurer, after a Milan court found that a sculpture depicting two snakes is original, contrary to the American artist’s claims.
The decision means the value of the version of the work owned by the broker is likely to rocket, while that of a second version displayed at the University of Ohio art gallery could significantly depreciate, according to experts.
Koons may also soon be out of pocket, after judges entitled the collector to seek compensation from him.
Depicting two cheery snakes wearing green bow-ties, the 34-inch-high porcelain work forms part of a series of sculptures created by the Milanese producer Fidia S.n.c. for Koons’s 1988 Banality exhibition in Cologne. The collector bought his version of the work in a lost property auction in Milan for 500,000 lire in 1991 (around €500 in today’s money), at a time when the American artist was little known outside specialist circles. Ohio University bought its version in 1989. The two versions carry the same title on their bases.
Last October, the Milan court upheld a previous ruling issued two years earlier, which found that the collector's version is "an authorised authentic artwork of Mr. Jeffrey Koons”. The Ohio version may be a "clone" made after the original was believed to be lost, Marianna Garrone, the collector’s lawyer, tells The Art Newspaper. According to art specialists consulted by the collector, the work’s “unique and incredible history” mean it is now “priceless”, Garrone adds.
Koons initiated a previous legal battle in 1997 after the collector listed the work for auction at Christie’s New York, blocking the sale and submitting claims to New York’s Southern District Court that the work was fake. However, Koons changed his story when questioned during the trial, saying that, while the work had in fact been displayed in Cologne, it was a defective prototype and should have been destroyed. The court concluded that this claim was unfounded.
The case resurfaced in Italy in 2014, when a Milan gallerist showed interest in buying the work and asked Koons to verify its authenticity. After the artist said that it was a prototype, the collector demanded that he pay compensation for the lost sale. Koons, in turn, asked the collector to pay damages of €8m, the average value of works from the Serpents group. The Milan court concluded that the work was an authorised and authentic Koons.
According to the ruling, any future compensation requests issued by the collector would be dealt with in a “separate judgement”. Koons has appealed the court’s latest decision and the case will be definitively heard in Italy’s Court of Cassation, Garrone says.
Ohio University’s art gallery had not responded to The Art Newspaper’s request for a statement by the time of publication. Koons’s sculpture Rabbit sold for a record $91m in 2019, making him the world's most expensive living artist at auction.