The Equine Art Protection League saddles up

Real or fake?
One version of this painting is an original, done by St. Paul artist Lynn Maderich. The other is a forgery which was recently up for sale on eBay. Which is which?
Images courtesy of Lynn Maderich

In a painting called "Window Watching," the sad face of a Bay Arabian gazes at the viewer through a stall door. It's an award-winning, oil-on-canvas horse painting by St. Paul artist Lynn Maderich. Last year it won Maderich acclaim at a prestigious equine art exhibition in Kentucky. It was featured on the exhibition's Web site.

One morning this summer, Maderich logged on to her computer and found three different e-mails alerting her to a forgery of her work. She clicked on the link and her stomach dropped. There it was, a copy of her painting.

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"On sale, on eBay, for a rip-roaring $90," she says.

Maderich had listed the original for $4,200.

After she got over the initial shock, Maderich had to laugh at the seller's description of the forged copy.

"This one was titled 'The Waiting Game,' by 'the incomparable equine artist, G.R. Davis.'"

Maderich immediately contacted her attorney, who specializes in intellectual property. His advice, strangely enough, was to purchase the piece.

"I thought he was mad," Maderich says. "But he said, 'No, buy it. It does a couple things. It gets it off the market so nobody else is going to get it, and you'll have the evidence in your hands. Plus, when you make the purchase we'll find out if the seller recognizes your name.'"

Painting forgeries
In Chinese painting factories, copies of artworks are churned out in assembly-line fashion. Some are forgeries based on images taken from books or the Web.
Photo courtesy of Jack White

So Maderich bought the forged copy. She also wrote a warning under eBay's "feedback to the seller."

"Forgery!! Cheap China factory copy. I should know; I painted the original."

Maderich says the seller deflected the complaint at first, but later wrote an apology blaming her buyer and asking Maderich to retract her negative eBay comment.

"She was terribly, terribly aggrieved," Maderich says, "and wanted to immediately remove that negative from my feedback if I removed the negative from hers. No!"

Maderich ended up filing a complaint with eBay, and her situation with the seller has yet to be resolved.

Stacks of forged paintings
Stacks of paintings in a warehouse in China.
Photo courtesy of Jack White

But she also gained some valuable allies in the fight against Internet art fraud. The three people who contacted her about the forgery were artists themselves, and members of the Equine Art Protection League.

"It sounds for all the world like they should have capes and tights and a logo on their chests, and I love 'em," Maderich says.

The Equine Art Protection League was started by Sherrie Engler, a well-known horse artist in Greenfield, Tennessee. Its mission -- to scour the Internet for cases of copyright infringement.

Engler was tired of having her art stolen and re-packaged on the Web, and she knew a lot of other equine artists and photographers were too. In two years, the league has grown to more than 120 strong.

"And all we ask of the members," Engler says, "is just once a month, take 10 minutes out of their day and just look somewhere, on eBay or some of these other sites that are big for infringement, like Cafe Press, and just search for them, post their findings to the group. And then as a group, we look at them and try to match who they belong to."

Sherrie Engler
Equine artist Sherrie Engler founded the Equine Art Protection League after discovering that her art was being stolen and repackaged on the Web.
Photo courtesy of Sherrie Engler

Engler says the league also teaches artists how to file proper complaints with eBay. She says it's been able to shut down hundreds of sites, but the problem continues.

Engler believes it can largely be traced to so-called painting factories in China. She says the forgers download images of artworks or take them from books, duplicate them in assembly-line fashion and sell them all over the world.

Horses are extremely popular subjects. Engler says dealers snatch them up for really cheap prices, and she doesn't mean $20, $10 or even $5 per painting.

"No, about three bucks," she says.

And they're re-sold for $70. That's quite a mark-up.

"Exactly," Engler confirms.

Engler adds that copyright laws don't help, because the Chinese violate them with impunity. She says artists can hire attorneys and go after the dealers, but it ends up costing more than it's worth.

"Until the law is changed in this country," Engler says, "where it allows us as artists to go into small claims courts without attorneys and to sue these people, then we're all just left scratching our heads, going, 'Well gee, how many forgeries of mine are out there now?'"

Showing off her work
Lynn Maderich shows off two of her equine paintings.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

And that's pretty much where St. Paul artist Lynn Maderich finds herself -- resigned to the hazards of showing and selling her work online.

"If I'm going to advertise my art and have people see it, to appreciate it and hopefully buy it," she says, "I'm going to have to just accept that there's going to be some level of infringement, and I just do my best to stop it."

And while there's always the possibility of fraud, Maderich says the Web also gives millions of people a chance to see her paintings. It's a double-edged sword, she says, and both sides are really sharp.

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