Those who can’t afford high-priced works of art typically turn to DIY versions to decorate their homes. It’s far cheaper and allows “patrons” to customize the art to fit their space and personal taste. But when you’re a real estate tycoon worth $3.1 billion looking to decorate your properties, these DIY projects become forgeries.
On Thursday, ArtNet reported that 71-year-old Igor Olenicoff and his company, Olen Properties, were charged with copyright infringement and $450,000 in damages after sculptor Don Wakefield discovered multiple “unauthorized” versions of his works scattered around Southern California.
According to the artist, he reached out to Olenicoff in 2004 while looking for potential buyers. The information he provided included web links containing photos of all of his work. Four years later, Wakefield came across an amoeba-like stone figure titled Human Natures: Many Faces (2005) outside of an Olenicoff property in Newport Beach. The resemblance was so uncanny that the artist thought it was his actual Untitled (1992) work co-created with artist Joseph “Chick” Glickman. Wakefield didn’t realize the underlying connection until he discovered more of these knockoff works.
“In or about January 2010, Wakefield discovered three copies of Untitled at an Olen Properties location in Irvine, California,” Wakefield’s 2012 complaint stated. “Two of these copies were unaltered copies of Untitled, and the third is an unauthorized derivative work which was entitled A Tear Must Fall. It was only upon discovery of these three sculptures that Wakefield realized that the sculpture he discovered in Newport Beach was, in fact, an unauthorized copy and not the original.”
Olenicoff claimed that he had obtained Human Natures: Many Faces, along with two other works, from a Chinese craftsman at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but refused to identify the source or craftsman.
Forged works of art are far from uncommon. This year alone there have been movies and large-scale exhibitions dedicated to these copycats and their creators.
Art and Craft, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Fest, focuses on the life of master forger Mark Landis, a 59-year-old man who—for the past three decades—has been donating forged works of art to prestigious museums across the country. His works—along with accompanying papers—were so perfectly crafted that no one, not even in-house experts, questioned a thing.
In 2011, institutions finally caught on when the same works began to appear in different museums. Soon the FBI Art Crime Team was called in, but nothing could be done. After all, Landis wasn’t turning a profit. “It wasn’t like Landis went in and [demanded money],” Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, explained in the film. “That would be fraud. The fact is that he gave it to the museum for free. It’s up to the museum to determine what they think of it.”
For Olenicoff, the replicas seem to be his way around a California mandate requiring that all real estate developers allocate a specified percentage of money to public art on their properties. And Wakefield wasn’t the first to fall victim to his scheme.
Sculptor John Raimondi filed a separate federal complaint for a very similar situation. According to the artist, Olenicoff reached out to him in 2001 seeking to purchase custom-made versions of his large-scale limited edition works, Dian (1987) and Ceres (1994) for various Olen properties. The abstract sculptures made from reflective materials organically spawn from the ground at various places flowing to a sharp point ten to twenty feet in the air.
Raimondi and Olenicoff met twice to discuss their plans. Olenicoff was looking to spend $100,000 to $250,000 per the city ordinance requirements. At their second meeting, Raimondi provided detailed photos and drawings, along with pricing, but never heard back from the developer.
“Beginning approximately ten days after the second meeting,” Raimondi’s complaint stated. “Olenicoff refused to speak with Raimondi. Defendants instead had an assistant relay to Raimondi that Olenicoff had a change of heart about the sculptures. Instead of purchasing the sculptures from Raimondi, defendants, at their direction, had multiple unauthorized and infringing copies of the sculptures manufactured in China.”
If Olenicoff’s second trial—starting June 24—is anything like the first, the ruling could likely swing in Raimondi’s favor, given the similar narrative of his complaint. And the payout could be well more than the original $100,000 to $250,000 price tag for Olenicoff. Maybe next time he won’t take the DIY approach and instead will give a miniscule percentage of his net worth to the hard working, creative minds that deserve proper credit and compensation. Then again, this is a guy who—in 2007—pleaded guilty to stashing large sums of money in off shore bank accounts to avoid taxes. If $52 million in back taxes and two years probation wasn’t enough to keep him honest, we’re not sure this will either.