A 49-year-old German man was recently found guilty of theft in relation to four artworks, which had been thrown in the garbage by world-famous artist Gerhard Richter in July 2016.
Richter became aware of the scam when the Gerhard Richter Archive was contacted by the defendant with a request to issue certificates of authenticity, before selling the works at auction in Munich.
Dietmar Elger, the head of the Archive (which is now part of Dresden State Art Collection) became suspicious as the sketches – though authentic - were unusually unframed and unsigned. The man claimed to have received the sketches from a painter, who in turn would have obtained them directly from Richter. The Archive then informed the latter, who decided to file a complaint against the defendant, also requesting the destruction of the works. A few days ago, a judge of the Cologne District Court held that - although the works were discarded and thrown away – they still belonged to the artist, who decided to hand them over to a waste disposal facility for the purpose of disposal. The man was thus fined EUR 3,150 for theft and the works -valued at approximately EUR 60,000 – were seized.
This case raises some interesting legal issues.
First, whether a work which is thrown away by an artist still belongs to the latter or, instead, shall be considered as an abandoned property, belonging to the first taker, who can subsequently sell it as an authentic work of art.
Second, and most importantly, it concerns the artist’s right to disown and request the destruction of authentic works, if they do not correspond any longer to their artistic feelings. In 2015, for instance, Richter decided to exclude some early works of his West German period from his catalogue raisonné to better shape his artistic legacy. The artist is known for editing his oeuvre and these artistic choices often bring criticism and uncertainty to the art world. The artist’s right to change their mind about the worth of their own artistic production often conflicts with the owner's right of the disowned works to dispose of them.