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Scott v. Dixon: Sculpture Not Protected by Federal Law

A New York federal court has considered whether federal law allowed an artist to maintain a lawsuit against property owners for the destruction of her artwork.

Linda Scott (“Artist”) is a sculptor who created fifty-two foot tall sculpture named the “Stargazer Deer” in the early 1990s. This statue attained quite a bite of public notoriety, as it was located on one of the main highway entry points to the Hamptons, a vacation area on Long Island.

In 1991, Peter and Candida Dixon (“Owners”) commissioned the Artist to create a work of art for their backyard. The Artist created a forty foot long, ten foot high, 6,000 pound sculpture of a swan (“Sculpture”) for the Owners. The Owners placed the Sculpture in their backyard. The Sculpture was not visible to the public in the backyard, nor was the Sculpture ever shown to art critics or other artists. The only public acknowledgement of the Sculpture was a 1992 newspaper article.

In 1999, the Owners entered into a contract to sell their home. The purchase contract contained a rider obligating the Owners to remove the Sculpture from the property prior to closing. The Owners hired a company to remove the Sculpture from their yard and store the Sculpture. The Owners offered to give the Sculpture to the Artist, but no agreement to return the Sculpture was reached. In the meantime, the Sculpture was stored uncovered on the ground following its removal. An individual who assisted the Artist in the construction of the Sculpture viewed the Sculpture in 2002 and he testified that vines had grown over the Sculpture and the rust and corrosion occurring would make it impossible to return the Sculpture to its original condition.

The Artist filed a lawsuit against the Owners under the Visual Artists Rights Act (“Act”), a federal law which gives artists the ability to protect their artwork even after it has been sold. To succeed under the Act, an artist must show: (1) the work in question is a “work of recognized stature” and (2) the work was destroyed by another in an intentional or grossly negligent manner. A trial was held to consider whether the Artist had established a valid case under the Act.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York rejected the Artist’s allegations and ruled in favor of the Owners. Looking at the evidence, the court found that the Artist had failed to establish that the Sculpture was a “work of recognized stature” that was entitled to the Act’s protections. While her “Stargazer Deer” had achieved public recognition and acclaim, the Act does not provide protection to all artistic works by an artist who may have one work entitled to protection. The court stated that despite whatever artistic merit the Sculpture may have had, the Artist had not shown that the Sculpture had the kind of public recognition which would entitle the Sculpture to protection under the Act. Therefore, the court rejected the Artist’s lawsuit and entered judgment in favor of the Owners.

Scott v. Dixon, 309 F. Supp. 2d 395 (E.D.N.Y. 2004).

Editor’s Note: To view the Sculpture as well as other works by the Artist, click here.