STUDIO CITY — Artist Brian Ura often worked late into the night trying to get the colors just right on the seven still lifes of fruits and vegetables he was painting for a posh new San Diego-area hotel.
The $12,300 commission was the biggest ever for Ura, a struggling artist. Eagerly, he traveled to Coronado for Le Meridien Hotel's grand opening in June, 1988. He was shocked to find his paintings covered with a dark, blotchy coating of stain or varnish that Ura said was applied so crudely that "it looked like shoe polish."
"It was like someone had slapped me across the face. I was numb," said Ura, 42. "The subtle color nuances were totally destroyed. I feel the paintings are not mine anymore. I'm embarrassed to have people see my name on them."
Until 10 years ago, Ura would have had no legal recourse unless he had expressly reserved his rights in advance by contract. Even today, he would have few options in most parts of the country.
But Ura took advantage of a pioneering California law that allows a visual artist to collect damages and attorneys' fees from someone who alters, mutilates or destroys one of his original artworks--even if the artist no longer owns it.
Ura filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court last July seeking $1 million in actual and punitive damages from Neal Menzies, the art consultant who hired him to do the paintings; the hotel's art designer, Cynthia Forchielli and her company, Intra Designs and the framer, Jerry Solomon, all of Los Angeles.
Forchielli and Solomon did not return several phone calls from The Times. Menzies' attorney, Jonathan Chodos, said his client had nothing to do with the alterations and called Ura's lawsuit "totally without legal and moral justification."
The hotel was dropped from the lawsuit after Ura's attorney, Jeffrey Karpel, concluded that hotel officials did not authorize or know about the changes to the paintings, which still hang in the hotel restaurant. The paintings apparently had been considered too bright for the restaurant's subdued atmosphere.
The 10-year-old California law on which Ura based his lawsuit, the California Art Preservation Act, is the first of its kind in the nation. Authored by former State Sen. Alan Sieroty (D-Los Angeles), it prohibits unauthorized changes to works of "fine art," which the law defines as "original paintings, sculptures, drawings or artworks in glass." The law does not protect artwork created for commercial uses in "advertising, magazines, newspapers or other print and electronic media."
The law is based on the doctrine of droit moral, or moral right , which holds that a work of art is an expression of the artist's creative personality, giving the artist an interest in his art even after its sale.
"If you were an artist who had invested five years of your life in creating something that you thought was extraordinarily wonderful but because the only way artists can live is to sell their work, you had to part with it, how would you feel about someone destroying it?," asked Stephen E. Weil, deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum, the modern art branch of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and co-author of two books on art law.
An artist's reputation depends on his artwork; if it is destroyed, he can't use it to attract potential clients, mount it in a retrospective show of his works, or reproduce it in exercise of his copyrights, said La Jolla arts lawyer Peter Karlen, who perhaps has handled more artists rights cases than any other lawyer in the state.
The doctrine also holds that changing or destroying original works of art deprives the public of a part of its culture, said Greg Victoroff, co-chairman of the Beverly Hills Bar Assn.'s Committee for the Arts. The doctrine says that original artworks need special protection because they are unique and irreplaceable.
"Records and books are virtually indestructible because they exist in multiples," Weil said. "You could not destroy Beethoven's Fifth Symphony no matter how hard you tried. But destroy a work of art and it's gone forever."
The doctrine originated around the turn of the century in France. The concept is alien to American precepts of property rights, which generally permit people to do whatever they want with what they own, experts said.
There was no legal recourse, therefore, for artist Alfred D. Crimi, who devoted years of painstaking work to a large fresco commissioned for a wall of Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. In 1946, eight years after he finished it, the congregation's leaders decided that Christ's bare chest looked too worldly and, without consulting Crimi, painted over the fresco.
Devastated, the artist unsuccessfully sued seeking to have the paint removed or the fresco detached and given to him.