Celebrated American photographer William Eggleston won a legal victory last month when a judge in the US District Court in the Southern District of New York dismissed a claim of fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation brought by collector Jonathan Sobel. Sobel is an avid Eggleston collector who owns 190 of the artist's prints and even helped finance a 2008 Eggleston retrospective at the Whitney Museum, where he is a trustee.

The legal dispute arose because Sobel owns an 11.75" x 17.38" dye transfer print of Eggleston's famous Memphis (Tricycle) image, shown below, for which he reportedly paid $250,000. That print is one of an edition of 20 that was created in the 1980s. Last year a large format 44" x 60" inkjet print, authorized by Eggleston and made from a digital scan of the same film, was sold at a Christie's auction for $578,500. Sobel argued that by creating a new set of large format inkjet prints beyond the 30-year old limited edition of dye transfer prints of the same image, Eggleston was diluting the value of the earlier Sobel-owned print. As Sobel told ARTINFO in an interview after filing his claim, 'The commercial value of art is scarcity, and if you make more of something, it becomes less valuable.'

Memphis (Tricycle) c. 1969-1970, William Eggleston. Twenty 11.75" x 17.38" dye transfer prints of this iconic image were produced by the artist in the 1980s as part of a limited edition. In 2012 the same image was sold at auction as a 44" x 60" inch inkjet print in an edition of 2 for $578,500.

The judge, Deborah Batts, dismissed Sobel's claim, writing that, 'Although both the Limited Edition works and the Subsequent Edition works were produced from the same images, they are markedly different'. She ruled that Eggleston could only be held liable for any subsequent loss in value of Sobel's smaller dye transfer print if the artist had created the new prints using the same dye transfer process. Eggleston's lawyer, John Cahill applauded the ruling stating, 'The decision is important because it confirms that artists who work in multiples will continue to have the right to use the images that they create'. You can read accounts of the origin of the claim and the subsequent ruling at ARTINFO.

While it's not difficult to understand Sobel's disappointment at paying for a photograph he valued based largely on its scarcity as a physical object, the ruling does seem to affirm, at least in the US, that an artist owns the image itself and is free to take advantage of future technologies as they present new opportunities to present the image in different forms. The question then is, does a large format inkjet print present a substantially different form than an 11 x 17 dye transfer print? A US District Court judge has said yes. What do you think?