Suspected imitation isn’t flattery for Basalt artist
ASPEN – Basalt artist Tania Dibbs got a funny feeling when, walking out of an Aspen art gallery recently, she spotted a painting on the wall.
“It looked really familiar,” she said.
Acting on a hunch she returned next door to her own gallery to check out a computerized portfolio of the oil paintings she has produced over the past 15 years. When she came across her 2004 landscape painting called “Valley Beyond,” she knew why she had a sense of deja vu.
“I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute,'” she said. The work next door “was an identical painting – poorly copied,” she said.
Too many details were the same, from the bumps on the clouds to the way the sunlight shines through them.
Dibbs and an employee printed a picture of her work, marched back to the neighboring gallery and showed it to an employee there. “We’re like, ‘Hey, look at this.’ He said, ‘That’s weird,'” Dibbs recalled.
The employee of the other gallery asked who painted their work first. They looked at the back of the painting to get a name and the year it was created. That’s when Dibbs spotted what she claims are tell-tale signs that it was a print produced by a sophisticated ink jet printer. The print, she believes, was touched up with texture to pass it off as more authentic.
“It was hard to believe, completely jaw-dropping,” Dibbs said. The chances of finding an alleged copy of her painting in the gallery next door to her own on Aspen’s Hyman Avenue mall were astronomical, she acknowledged.
Peter Calamari, co-owner of the Royal Street Gallery, where Dibbs spotted the alleged copy of her work, said Dibbs is jumping to conclusions.
“They’re completely different,” he said of the pieces
Sunsets are a popular subject among painters. There are similarities between the work, Calamari acknowledged, but he doesn’t believe they are similar enough to conclude that Dibbs’ work was copied.
“I think that’s going overboard,” Calamari said. “I don’t think there’s any proof of that.”
He was adamant that the piece he displayed wasn’t a print. He has been in business for 10 years, he said, and he doesn’t sell prints. “It was a painting,” he said.
Tracking the painter of the alleged copy has proven elusive for Dibbs. She pondered for about two months what to do about the alleged copyright infringement. She ultimately decided to press Calamari for answers because she feels ripped off as an artist. She wanted to find Sean Lemon, the alleged painter of the work that resembled her own.
“I’d like to get to where the buck stops,” Dibbs said. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, this will be easy. I’ll call him up and tell him to quit knocking me off.'”
She tried to learn more about Lemon online without luck. His was referred to as the creator of a couple of pieces, but she couldn’t find any contact information. That’s unusual, she said, because artists live or die based on their exposure and attention.
She talked to Calamari on Tuesday to find out where he acquired the painting. He was helpful, she said, but she is disappointed he didn’t investigate the matter on his own.
Calamari said he got the Lemon painting on consignment from Sterling Art Brokers in Picayune, Miss. He supplied Dibbs with the contact information, and she talked to Sterling’s general manager, John Kaufman.
Dibbs said Kaufman provided her with the name of the art dealer that sells Lemon’s work, but she hasn’t been able to reach anyone there. She’s not surprised. She suspects her work was forged in China, mass produced and that multiple prints are now for sale.
Kaufman said Dibbs expressed her view to him, but he disagrees with her assessment. He suspects Lemon and Dibbs based their work on the same source and the resulting paintings are a coincidence. “A lot of artists paint from the same photograph,” he said.
Dibbs said she worked from a photograph taken by a friend to create “Valley Beyond.” The photo was never in the public realm, she said.
She completed the oil painting in 2004, included a picture of it in her website, showed it at several galleries, including one in New York City and at the Keating Fine Art Gallery in Basalt. The piece was purchased in 2006 by a resident of Texas.
Dibbs said anyone would have had access to an image of “Valley Beyond” and her other work from her website. She believes someone downloaded the image and used it for prints.
Like Calamari, Kaufman insisted the Lemon work is a painting and not a print. Lemon is an artist who works with a broker that Sterling Art Brokers first worked with in 2000, Kaufman said. The broker sells the works of about 20 artists. Kaufman declined to name the broker. He said his firm hasn’t handled Lemon’s paintings for some time.
Kaufman claimed his firm acquired the Lemon sunset painting early this decade, before Dibbs painted her piece. Nevertheless, Kaufman offered to work with Dibbs. “I feel bad that she’s upset about this,” he said.
Royal Street Gallery returned the Lemon painting, or print, to Sterling Art Brokers this week. “I told Tania we would just destroy it,” Kaufman said, explaining it is an effort to put her mind at ease. The painting is en route, he said.
Dibbs had a friend go into Royal Street Gallery and use a cell phone to take a picture of the Lemon work before it disappeared. She believes the photos of her work and the Lemon piece prove her point.
Aspen-based art appraiser Barb Preston doesn’t have personal knowledge of the Dibbs’ situation, but she said copying in the art world is commonplace. Usually though, the artists getting copied are famous and they are dead. It’s extremely rare for forgers to copy the work of a living artist because the greater chances of getting caught.
Copying was so widespread in the late 1980s that it spurred FBI investigations, arrests and a collapse of prices in the art world for a few years, Preston said. Copying is on the rise again because advanced computer technology makes it so easy, she said.
Art buyers must take steps to make sure what they are getting is an original. “Do your homework,” Preston said. “You can’t assume the art dealer knows what they’re looking at.”
Dibbs fears that multiple prints of “Valley Beyond” are floating around the art world for sale. “The world of images is smaller than I thought,” she said.
Calamari feels like a victim as well. “I feel like an innocent bystander,” he said.
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It’s that time of year — hikers and mountain bikers must be aware that seasonal closures are taking effect on multiple trails in the area today for the winter for the benefit of wildlife.