Maurizio Cattelan faces plagarism lawsuit over banana artwork

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Almost three years ago, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan kicked off one of the art world’s biggest viral moments when he sold a banana taped to a wall for $120,000 at Art Basel Miami.

But Joe Morford, an artist from Glendale, California, claims the world-renowned artist copied his own 2000 work called “Banana & Orange”. Now, a federal judge in the Southern District of Florida has ruled that Morford can pursue a case against Cattelan, saying that Morford “sufficiently alleges that there is a similarity in the (few) protected elements” of his work.

Should it go to court, the banana showdown will take place in Miami, where Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. denied Cattelan’s motion to dismiss the case last Wednesday.

“Fortunately for the Court, the question of whether a banana stuck to a wall can be art is more of a metaphysical question,” Scola wrote in her ruling. “But the legal question before the Court may be equally difficult – did Morford sufficiently allege that Cattelan’s banana infringed his banana?”

Morford seeks damages in excess of $390,000 – the total amount of Cattelan’s sales for three editions of the artworks – as well as court costs and travel expenses.

Maurizio Cattelan attends the 2020 Armory Show in New York. Credit: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Cattelan gained international attention when he sold three nearly identical versions of his banana artwork at the 2019 art fair, with the final piece fetching $150,000. Titled “Comedian”, the work became instantly recognizable as it was memorized on the internet and made headlines again after a performing artist ripped the fruit off the wall and ate it. This did not stop sales, however, as Cattelan was not selling the original banana, but rather a certificate of authenticity and instructions for fitting the part, including the exact angle and height to tape the fruit. Since then, “Comedian” has entered the collection of the Guggenheim in New York, thanks to an anonymous donor.
Emmanuel Perrotin, founder of the Paris-based Perrotin Art Gallery, which represents Cattelan, told CNN after the work’s debut that bananas are “a symbol of global commerce, a double meaning, as well as a way comedy classic. He added that Cattelan transforms mundane objects into “vehicles of both pleasure and criticism”.

But Morford alleges “Comedian” plagiarized his own artwork, “Banana & Orange,” made nearly two decades earlier. “Banana & Orange” features the titular fruits affixed with tape to green backgrounds painted on a wall.

“Did it in 2000. But some guy steals my bric-a-brac and pimps it for over 120,000 in 2019,” Morford wrote in a public Facebook post in 2019 along with an image of the artwork. “A lot of plagiarism? »

According to court documents, self-represented Morford had registered the work with the US Copyright Office and posted it on his website, Facebook and YouTube accounts long before Cattelan created “Comedian.”

Cattelan’s lawyers argued that Morford had “no valid copyright” in the elements of the artwork – the banana and duct tape taped against a wall – but the court determined that Morford ” may be able to claim copyright in the expression of that idea” through the “selection, coordination, (and) arrangement” of the elements.

“Although the use of silver tape to attach a banana to a wall may not espouse the highest degree of creativity, its absurd and grotesque nature meets the ‘minimum degree of creativity’ necessary to qualify as original”, Scola writes.

While allowing the Morford case to proceed, Scola’s decision did not weigh on his merits at trial. If Morford cannot establish that Cattelan had access to “Banana & Orange” in court, he will have to show that the works are “surprisingly similar”, according to court documents. Cattelan argued that the previous piece is “‘not sufficiently original’ to warrant protection”.

Attorneys for Cattelan and Morford did not immediately return CNN’s request for comment.

Top Image Caption: People post in front of ‘Comedian’ by Maurizio Cattelan presented by Perrotin Gallery and presented at Art Basel Miami 2019 at the Miami Beach Convention Center on December 6, 2019 in Miami Beach, Florida.

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