Industry Moral Rights

An Update on the Artist Who Smashed the $1 million Vase

Ai Weiwei exhibit

Recall the fateful day back in February when Maximo Caminero, a local Miami artist, upset about The Perez Art Museum Miami’s perceived lack of support for local artist, took out his anger in spontaneous protest by smashing a vase by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei.  His protest stunned the art world, not just because of the brazen act, nor, the fact that the vase was valued at $1 million, but because the entire scene was captured on video, later gone viral.

Caminero has been charged with criminal mischief and faces up to five years in prison.  At the time, despite Caminero’s mistake as to the value of the work, his action was condemned across the Internet as an idiotic stunt gaining him little support for his cause.  However, as often happens with the passing of time and cooler heads, Caminero has been able to muster support from fellow artists.  A few dozen artists have promised to donate works for an auction to help cover Caminero’s legal expenses.  According to Danilo Gonzales, a painter and sculptor, “We do not support the act, but we support the intention.”

At the time, the media jumped on the story and as is common with our 24-hour news cycle, critical aspects of the story were missing. Nobody disputes that this was an act of vandalism, but the protest wasn’t as ridiculous as it may have seem.  Caminero has said that he had acted in solidarity with Weiwei, driven more by a spontaneous impulse to emulate Mr. Ai’s own destruction of vases, some thousands of years old.  According to the New York Times, Caminero claims he did not realize until later that the vase, painted over in bright green by Mr. Wei, dated from the Han dynasty.  And why would he?  How many people paint over 2000 year old vases?

The question one must first ask is, who is the vandal?  Ai Weiwei obtained a 2000-year-old Han dynasty vase with an incalculable historic value and decided to paint over it for art’s sake. The exhibition also included a series of black and white photographs showing Weiwei, holding aloft a beautiful Han Dynasty Urn created by an artisan over 2000 years ago, and smashing it to bits on the ground. If anyone think they aren’t real, these antiquities were purchased by Weiwei in the 1990s and their authenticity has been validated.

Does that give Caminero the right to destroy them? Does Weiwei have that right? Cultural heritage laws are very tricky. They are based not only law within countries, but treaties between countries. For example, assume someone loots or illegally purchases a cultural object in China, and then takes it to the U.S., while that looting may be illegal in China, having it repatriated back to China depends upon treaties between the U.S and China. In 2009, the U.S. signed an accord with China, which covers antiquities dating from the Paleolithic period, starting in 75,000 B.C., through the end of the Tang dynasty, in A.D. 907, and all monumental sculpture and wall art at least 250 years old. However, the objects must be illegally owned under Chinese law and Weiwei purchased these pieces legitimately and so are his to do with what he likes. In this case it was to create art.

The problem for Caminero is that while he may have some help funding his criminal defense, there is likely a civil action on its way.

Like them or not, approve of the way he used the objects or not, Weiwei created something with meaning and forethought, and the work is certainly provocative. Caminero’s actions on the other hand were spontaneous and spurious, and while maybe he has a point in his protest, his actions are more an act of vandalism than artistic statement.

The problem for Caminero is that while he may have some help funding his criminal defense, there is likely a civil action on its way. And money may not help him much.  The act of vandalism will be hard to dispute, regardless of the underlying political protect. Perhaps, if this is his first offense, he may be able to work out a deal with prosecutors for community service or some other agreement that does not include jail time.  But that does not limit a civil action against him. Once his criminal case is over, you can almost certainly be sure that Weiwei will sue him for the value of the work he destroyed.

And as is so often the case, the perpetrator does not have a million dollars, and while Caminero may be able to raise additional money for his civil defense, it will be unlikely to cover the million if he loses.  So, the target of a civil suit will probably be the Perez Museum, since they are the one with the deep pockets. Counts such as negligence, for not having the appropriate security to protect the work, or maybe even a breach of contract claim may be sought.  The criminal case may take a while so we are not likely to see a civil suit any time soon, but I would be surprised if it didn’t happen at some point in the near future.

About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at Fotofilosophy.com or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

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