Richard Prince – No copyright

[07 Jun 2011]


Richard Prince draws on the culture of his age, as Andy Warhol did previously. In spite of censorship and litigation over copyright, his contact with the worlds of publicity and fashion, his work, which sells for millions, is especially sought after by Americans.

Born in 1949 in the Panama Canal Zone, Richard PRINCE produced his first work, collages based on photographs, in 1975. Since then the technique of appropriation, so common in contemporary art, has marked out a career spanning 35 years. From 1977 onwards, he began to use re-photography, based on photographs from the New York Times. This method, disregarding respect for copyright, is the basis for his best known works and has involved him in the greatest scandals.

Appropriation, censorship and copyright
The most sensational scandal was that surrounding Spiritual America (1983) (1983), a photograph of a photograph taken in 1975 by Garry GROSS, showing Brooke Shields at the age of 10, standing naked in a bath wearing heavy make-up. The photograph was censored on various occasions, including the Présumés innocents exhibition in Bordeaux in 2000 and Pop Life at Tate Modern nine years later. What shocked people was the equivocal appearance of the young model, rather than the appropriation of a photograph which was not his own. A few years later Richard Prince’s notoriety was such that some of his work was being sold for millions of dollars. The delicate issue of copyright resurfaced late in 2008, when Patrice CADIOU sued him for the unauthorised use of his photographs to produce collages (the Canal Zone series, exhibited in 2008 at the Gagosian gallery in New York). In March 2011 the American courts found in favour of the plaintiff, considering that Prince’s work was derivative and infringed the law. Richard Prince is to appeal, while Patrick Cariou’s photographs, previously unknown, have gained considerably in status and value.

2008 : year of excess
At the close of his exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York (28 September 2007 to 9 January 2008), Richard Prince unveiled a collection of bags created for the prestige firm Louis Vuitton. The artist’s Nurse paintings, inspired by the covers of 1950s pulp romance, were an outstanding success when they were used by Marc Jacobs as the inspiration for the Louis Vuitton 2008 spring collection. From this moment on Richard Prince’s work set the trend.
His exhibitions and prestigious partnerships placed him at the forefront of the art and media scene. Record sales figures followed. By the end of 2008 prices for his work had risen by 550% in eight years. Before the official announcement of the association with Marc Jacobs the pictures in the Nurse series were offered by the Barbara Gladstone gallery for less than USD 100,000. In 2006 Tender Nurse was the first piece to sell for over a million. In 2007, Piney Woods Nurse was sold for the equivalent of $5.4 million (13 Nov. 2007, Christie’s) and in 2008, Overseas Nurse brought $7.5 million (GBP 3.77 million). The speculative euphoria was at its peak, although the seller and Christie’s themselves had hoped for an even higher price for Overseas Nurse, setting an estimate of four to six million pounds sterling. Each year the record price for a Nurse rose by over a million euros and the record set by Overseas Nurse represented an increase of 7,400% in six years! Prices could not continue to spiral up in this way: in December 2008, for the first time, a painting in the Nurse series was priced down at an auction.

When his reputation and the price of his work were at their peak in 2008, there was a sharp correction. This was first seen in the sales of three pieces in New York in November 2008, which did not reach the estimated prices of USD 400,000 to USD 600,000. Among them Sotheby’s was wiping out a failed sale of a 1980 self portrait (ektachrome Self-Portrait, ten copies) valued at between USD 450,000 and USD 800,000 in 2007. At that time Richard Prince became the author of the most expensive contemporary photograph on the market with a Cowboy used to advertise Marlboro. This American icon, standing against the setting sun, sold for double the estimate on 7 February 2007 at a price of USD 3 million (€2 million), beating Andreas GURSKY’s 99 cent II by nearly a hundred thousand dollars ($2.9 million, Sotheby’s).

During the period of correction (late 2008-2009) million dollar sales were few and far between, though there were four between January 2009 and July 2010. In the last year the best result was for Nurse in Hollywood #4, a 2004 acrylic pìece from the Halsey Minor collection, sold for the equivalent of $5.7 million (Phillips de Pury & Company, New York, 13 May 2010). This exceptional result, helped by the source of the piece, falls just €200,000 short of Prince’s record, set when the market was at its height. His fortunes are recovering then, while the strong market for high class American photography is also reflected in the figure of Cindy SHERMAN, who set a record equivalent to USD 3.4 million on 11 May 2011 (Christie’s, Untitled, 1981, Centerfolds series, estimated USD 1.5-2 million).
For Cindy Sherman, as for Richard Prince, photography is a two tier market, with more accessible pieces running parallel to multi-million dollar works.
Several photographs by Richard Prince have changed hands for less than $7,500, in particular those in the Girlfriend series, produced in sets of 25 copies, ideal for those who have fond memories of the 1980s.