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Sculptor Wins Big in 9th Cir. After Billionaire Copies His Work

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 08, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ever see contemporary art and think "I could do that." Well, actually doing it could cost you a pretty penny, as one real estate billionaire recently found out. Igor Olenicoff, the 156th richest person in the world, was accused of ripping off the work of Donald Wakefield. A federal jury awarded Wakefield $450,000 -- though the court intervened, allowingOlenicoff to walk away without paying a dime.

Until now. On Monday, the Ninth Circuit upheld the jury's award, as well as the court's ordered destruction of the knock-off sculptures.

"Hey, That's a Nice Looking Sculpture!"

In 2011, Wakefield had the surreal experience of spotting his own sculptures, large stone and metal installations, at the entrance of a corporate office park in Newport Beach, California, according to the OC Weekly. But when he looked closer, he found that it wasn't the sculpture he had created with fellow artists Joseph Glickman. Rather, it was a knock-off, made by an anonymous stone carver in China. Inside that office park sat Olen Properties, a real estate development company helmed by Olenicoff.

Wakefield had contacted Olenicoff years before, he claimed, offering to sell him statues. But, according to Wakefield's lawsuit, Olenicoff commissioned fakes instead, six substantially similar sculptures in total. After a federal jury trial, Wakefield was awarded $450,000.

Ninth Finds in Favor of Wakefield

But the district court intervened, vacating the award as a matter of law. The Ninth on Monday reversed that determination. In a brief, unpublished opinion, the court explained that the $450,000 award was non-speculative and "sufficiently supported by evidence."

Given the evidence, "the jury could have determined that the actual use made by Defendants of the Plaintiff's work was worth $75,000 per infringing copy," the court explained.

The Ninth also ruled in Wakefield's favor on several other issues. For example, the district court erred in granting partial summary judgement on statute-of-limitations grounds, the Ninth found, because a jury could have found that Wakefield had "neither actual or constructive knowledge" that the first sculpture he spotted was not a copy of his own work but the work itself.

Finally, the court upheld the district court's grant of injunctive relief, finding no abuse of discretion or error of law. The district court had allowed Wakefield to choose whether he wanted to take possession of the sculptures or have them destroyed. He chose destruction.

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