Saturday, December 12, 2009

Original Art Stories: Art Theft - A Scenario

Recently on the Jack Kirby Yahoo list there’s been a lot of discussion about stolen artwork, centering on both Kirby’s own Marvel artwork, and the recently donated art for Amazing Fantasy #15 by Steve Ditko. Part of the debate has been to establish the difference between what is classified as ‘theft’ and what is classified as ‘liberated’ when it comes to original comic book art. My views on this subject are very clear, but this illustrates it better than anything.

The following scenario was posted by Joseph, who routinely posts on the Jack Kirby Yahoo list. The scenario is as such:

Company x bought and paid for artwork that rightfully belongs to them. It's awesome artwork on the level of Kirby.

They were going to use it, but for reasons unknown they're sitting in a shelf to be destroyed at a future date to make room for some orange crates coming in as that's now their new business.

They are a Chinese co. with a labyrinth of management that makes it hard to get to a person in authority. And they most likely have NO idea what they have as they bought the comic company (now bankrupt) with no real knowledge of the comic business.

You have access to the building and can take some out with absolute impunity.

Do you liberate the artwork, or treat it like a car to be destroyed?


My answer was as follows:

If the artist is alive I would contact them and alert them to the situation. If they were not in a position to act then I'd take it, with permission from the artist, and hand it over to either the artist, or their family, without hesitation.

Do I steal the artwork? That is, do I take it, store it, and wait for the artist to die or become senile and then sell it for profit? Or do I take the art, contact someone and sell it very silently for profit?

Absolutely not. Massive difference. The people, who stole art from Marvel and DC, and other companies, didn't 'liberate' shit. They stole the art and then sold it for their own personal gain. If they had 'liberated' it then they'd have handed it over to the artists who originally drew it. I actually know people who not only did just that, but got into trouble for doing so.


And therein lays the core to the debate. There are people who will argue this point until they are blue in the face. We know that Marvel stored their art, DC destroyed it outright. Other smaller companies did a combination of both, but very rarely was the art ever willingly given back to the artists. Gene Colan got a lot of his own art back by virtue of walking into Marvel and asking for it. Conversely Mike Esposito saw no DC art, no Metal Men, no Wonder Woman and no Flash art during his career, yet there are pages that appear on the market from time to time, and some covers which sit in the murky ‘underground’. Mike considers the pages stolen; others consider the pages to be ‘liberated’. Mike used to get upset when we'd discuss this issue and was very clear with his views of the dealers and collectors who sold his art, knowing it was stolen. Those views were they were parasites and criminals, not 'liberators'. This is my point, it’s not liberation when a person takes an item with the intent of making a profit from it – that’s theft, pure and simple.

There were some people who took art from either Marvel or DC and promptly handed it over to the artists in question, and there’s a (all too) few dealers and collectors who, when faced with an artist, or the artists family, asking for stolen art to be returned, do the right thing and hand it back. Otherwise those people, dealers and collectors, are merely engaging in dealing with stolen property.

In South Australia there’s a law. This law isn’t little known, it’s very well known. Called ‘Larceny by Finding’, it covers this very subject. Basically the law states that if a person ‘finds’ something, takes it and then sells it, they’re committing theft. If the person finds an item and takes it with the sole purpose of making a profit from it, and/or has no intention of handing it back to the rightful owner, then that’s theft. I expect that there’s a similar law in place in the USA that covers this. Just so you know I’m not funning, here are some basic legal definitions:
Theft is the dishonest taking of property belonging to another person with the intention of depriving the owner permanently of it. For the offence to be committed all the parts of the definition must be present. Another word for theft is Larceny.

Larceny refers to the most common type of stealing offence and what people would typically turn their mind to when thinking of stealing. To be found guilty of larceny, a person must have taken the property of another without their consent, with an intention to permanently deprive them of their property.

It is a defence to larceny if the accused person had a “claim of right” to the property. For instance, if an accused person honestly believed that they were legally entitled to the property taken, even if the belief held is unreasonable, then they are not guilty of larceny. This is a defence to similar “stealing” offences.

There is also a form of larceny that is not as obvious and is known as larceny by finding. This is where someone finds property that is not theirs and keeps it, without making reasonable attempts to find the owner.

If you receive any property which you know or ought to know has been stolen you can be imprisoned. If you are found in possession of property which has recently been stolen without a proper explanation, you may be found guilty of receiving.


I doubt that any judge, anywhere, would be sucked into a defence that a person honestly believed that they were legally entitled to a Jack Kirby Fantastic Four page or cover, for example, when Kirby and/or the inker(s) involved were still alive. In the case of original art correct ownership would have been able to be established (because the artists name is on each piece) and therefore, as no effort was made to return it – it’s theft. If the people who stole the art back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and beyond truly wanted to be considered ‘liberators’ then they’d have handed the art back to the artists, the bulk of whom were still very much alive and active in the days that the art went missing, and the bulk of whom made it very clear and well known in both the media and the industry as a whole that their art had been stolen. The fact that the art was taken, then stored and then sold, shows that the intent was never to liberate anything, but to steal it in order to realise a profit, a profit that would never benefit the rightful owner of the art.

Every now and then you hear of a dealer up in arms because art has been stolen from the back of a car, or from a table at a convention. The dealers, and collectors, get very indignant and highly righteous at the mere thought, let alone suggestion, that someone would dare to steal a page, or a cover, from a dealer at a show and then try to re-sell it, but there are some dealers who have made a lot of money over the years by doing just that – stealing art and selling it, or knowingly buying and/or trading in stolen art for the purpose of making a profit. It’s hard for me to feel any sympathy when such a person states how hard done by and upset they are when someone dares steal art that they ‘own’.

There are some who’d know exactly who I’m talking about here, although I doubt that the people who stole the art in the first place would recognise themselves, such is the level of denial and revisionism. The solution, however, really is very simple – stop dealing in stolen art and just hand it back to the artists or their families. At least give them the opportunity to say no to it. And stop insisting that you’re a ‘liberator’, if you took the art and then sold it; you’re a common, garden variety thief. If you took the art and handed it back to the rightful owner, then you can call yourself a ‘liberator’. Otherwise, stop deluding yourself and lying to others. You’re no better than the person who takes the art from your table or breaks into your car to steal the folders you’ve stupidly left on the back seat. The shame lies in the criminal behaviour of the original thieves, and also with the dealers and collectors of today who knowingly own and trade in stolen art. To those people, I hope that one day someone steals something valuable of yours and sells it, and you discover that there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

So now it's over to the readers of this blog - you have the scenario, what would YOU do?

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