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Artist Claims Copyright to Four Photos of Robert Mapplethorpe in $65 Million Lawsuit

A portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe featured on the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation's online portfolio, which James R. Miller claims is his own work, not Mapplethorpe's. (screenshot by the author via mapplethorpe.org)
A portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe featured on the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation’s online portfolio, which James R. Miller claims is his own work, not Mapplethorpe’s. (screenshot by the author via mapplethorpe.org)

On Tuesday, the poet, actor, photographer, and makeup artist James R. Miller filed a lawsuit against the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation (RMF), claiming copyright to four photographs that have been shown and sold for decades as Mapplethorpe’s work. Miller, who goes by “Bobby Miller” and is based in Provincetown, Massachusetts, is seeking damages of $45 million from the RMF, as well as $10 million each from Sean Kelly Gallery and Skarstedt Gallery (Kelly represents Mapplethorpe’s estate, Skarstedt shows and sells his work). Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, both of which have prints of the disputed photos in their permanent collections.

A portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which James R. Miller claims is his own work, not Mapplethorpe's. (screenshot by the author via guggenheim.org)
A portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which James R. Miller claims is his own work, not Mapplethorpe’s. (screenshot by the author via guggenheim.org)

According to Miller’s lawsuit, he shot the four disputed images on the night of November 22, 1979, at Mapplethorpe’s Bond Street loft. Miller met Mapplethorpe there to interview him. Later in the evening Miller persuaded Mapplethorpe to let him make him up and dress him in a feminine way. According to Miller’s lawsuit, he tended to Mapplethorpe’s makeup, hair, and costume, adjusted the lighting in the room, and then took 12 photos of Mapplethorpe. Miller left the undeveloped film with Mapplethorpe, who said he would have his studio assistant develop it. Miller never received the developed photos, but later discovered that four of the images from that roll of film were being shown as self-portraits by Mapplethorpe. The four photos in question show Mapplethorpe wearing typically feminine makeup. In one, he appears bare-chested facing the camera; in the three others — one taken head on, the two others in profile — he sports a fur collar.

“Mr. Miller was not aware of the misattribution of his work until the July 1988 Whitney Museum exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work,” Miller’s lawyer, Edward F. Westfield, told Hyperallergic by email. “Mr. Miller has attempted several times over the last 27 years to correct the historical and artistic record of the subject photographs, and has been repeatedly rebuffed by The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, leaving him with no recourse other than to pursue his rights in litigation.”

Miller and Westfield are seeking a juried trial. Their complaint includes a copy of a Certificate of Registration dated March 8, 2016, from the US Copyright Office, giving Miller copyright to the set of four images dubbed “Mapplethorpe in drag.”

A portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe featured in the artist's current retrospective, which James R. Miller claims is his own work, not Mapplethorpe's. (screenshot by the author via lacma.org)
A portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe featured in the artist’s current retrospective, which James R. Miller claims is his own work, not Mapplethorpe’s. (screenshot by the author via lacma.org)

It’s unclear what the enormous sums Miller is seeking as damages are based on. Mapplethorpe’s auction record, set by his 1987 portrait of Andy Warhol when it sold at Christie’s in 2006, is $643,200. The photos Miller is claiming are his own rarely come up for sale, but when a print of the portrait of Mapplethorpe bare-chested in makeup was sold at the German auction house Grisebach in 2012, it fetched $66,218. That same year, one of the fur collar portraits — titled “Self-Portrait as Transvestite” in the Christie’s catalogue — sold for $50,000. A current two-venue Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum may provide a bump to market demand for his work (the portion at LACMA includes one of the disputed portraits).

The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation has not responded to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.

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