This Los Angeles man paid $12,000 for two limited-edition prints by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. But what he actually bought was off-cuts of fabric left over from the Louis Vuitton factory, stretched and mounted.
In 2003, Louis Vuitton — fabricator of the most luxurious and luxe of all the luxury super-deluxe handbags to be made of coated canvas — launched a collaboration with Murakami, a multi-media artist perhaps best-known for his manga-inspired "superflat" paintings. Murakami produced a five-minute ad that played in Louis Vuitton stores, and designer Marc Jacobs had the artist redesign the signature Louis Vuitton Monogram canvas in a variety of ways. Murakami made two different multi-colored monogram patterns, a design which kept the original brown-and-gold monogram but overlaid it with cherries and animé characters, and one that featured cherry blossoms. All of these fabrics were turned into purses like these:
Image via the Guardian
Which, if you were alive in 2003, you doubtless saw plenty of on the street. Perhaps some nice sorority ladies from your local institution of higher education modeled them for you? (This was before the vogue for Vera Bradley.) Or maybe you spied a woman in capris and a pastel button-down stepping down from the cockpit of an SUV with one slung over her arm. Either way, they were around. But Clint Arthur, a Los Angeles-area distributor of gourmet butter, apparently didn't see any of them. When the Museum of Contemporary Art threw a Murakami retrospective in 2007, and opened a Louis Vuitton pop-up store selling Murakami's work on its premises, the monogram fabric designs were sold as prints in editions of 500. The boutique called them "canvasses revisited by Takashi Murakami," and so Arthur bought two at $6,000 apiece.
Arthur's contention is that the canvases, aside from just being purses without the handles and trim, were not "revisited" by Murakami at all: and the designs are, in fact, identical to the fabric used for the purses. (Because they are the purse fabric! Which any sighted person alive in the first world in 2003, let alone any collector with a supposed interest in Murakami, might have recognized!) But then, there's an argument to be made that cutting the fabric to a different size and stretching it over a frame does constitute "revisiting" the material and its purpose. (Insert point about Warhol's Brillo boxes here.) The entire nature of a print is that it's a reproducible, mass-produced object which nonetheless straddles the boundaries of art. The re-appropriation of mass-market imagery is integral to Murakami's work in general, not just his stuff for Louis Vuitton. The fact that Arthur has refused a refund of his purchase price, with interest, does not necessarily endear me to his lawsuit.
But then again, MOCA might have done more to let patrons know that the pop-up Louis Vuitton boutique in its gallery space was just selling four-year-old textiles as prints. As for LVMH, perhaps it's just my gender speaking, but I'm inured to the shock of such shysterism on the part of a luxury company. Charging $2000 for a canvas handbag might be criminal, but it ain't against the law. Calling the fabric left over an art print probably isn't either.