A view of the Dalí17 museum by @grierj, see more images on Flickr. (via flickr.com/grierj)

In a surreal turn of events, the Dalí Foundation is suing the newest Dalí Museum. In a 14-page lawsuit filed in federal court last Friday, the Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí located in Figueres, Spain claims that the California-based Dalí17 museum has “misappropriated Salvador Dalí’s name and likeness to advertise and promote their museum, and have reproduced and displayed copyrighted artworks.” Accordingly, the foundation is seeking the destruction of any merchandise and promotional materials having to do with the Monterey museum.

A 2016 banner at the Monterey Museum (image courtesy Daniel Hartwig’s Flickrstream)

The question of who owns the rights to the image of one of the world’s most celebrated 20th-century artists has no easy answer, but it is a question that’s been brought to trial before. In June 2016, a similar lawsuit by the foundation against a Barcelona exhibition product company was dismissed by the Civil Chamber of Spain’s Supreme Court, finding that the foundation did not have the legal standing to protect the artist’s image. The Supreme Court’s decision backed up a provincial court’s earlier ruling.

Although Dalí established his foundation six years before his death for the express purpose to protect his work and name, the Spanish court decision noted that this did not necessarily mean that it had a right to protect the artist’s image. The court decided that Dalí’s right to his image became null with his death.

This new and unexpected lawsuit against the Monterey-based Dalí17 museum indicates that the foundation is trying its luck in the US judicial system. Dalí17 opened two years ago thanks to real estate mogul Dmitry Piterman, who converted a former maritime museum with model boats into a container for his large collection of what many have claimed is the largest private collection of art by Dalí. While Monterey may seem like an odd choice for the Dalí museum, the city was the only place in the United States where the famed artist lived and painted. According to the museum, “While living in the Monterey Peninsula during the 1940’s, Dalí was heavily involved in the social art scene. As an early Carmel Art Association member, he exhibited vintage-sourced photographs and generously gave his time to help jury competitive art exhibitions for high school students throughout California. Dalí and his wife Gala stayed at the Hotel Del Monte in 1941 and 1942 and when the Navy took over during WWII they were moved to Cottage Row at the Del Monte Lodge, now the Lodge at Pebble Beach, where they stayed from 1943 to 1948.” The 17 in Dalí17 refers to the 17-mile roadway that circles much of the town.

Responding to news of the allegations, Piterman told Hyperallergic in a statement:

We have learned about the complaint filed by the Salvador Dali foundation through [the] media. We have not received nor have we been served with a complaint. We are working with our attorney to vigorously oppose this baseless complaint and defend our right to have a permanent exposition of this great artist in the historically significant area where he has resided.

However, some US-based attorneys doubt the strength of Piterman’s case. UC Hastings School of Law civil litigation professor David Levine told the SF Chronicle that Piterman “may well have a problem” by using Dalí’s name and image to promote the museum, and that the solution may be the destruction of all merchandise bearing the artist’s gravity-defying mustache. As expected in any case involving the renowned Surrealist, the result may well be a surprise.

If you haven’t visited the Dalí17 museum, we suggest you check out this photoset on Flickr by @grierj to get an idea of what to expect.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...