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Toronto artist Marco Sassone finally got a settlement in a seven-year-old lawsuit he launched against a Las Vegas auctioneer who was selling fake lithographs, copied from Sassone’s book.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto artist has finally got satisfaction in a forgery case he has been fighting for seven years. Painter Marco Sassone has collected on an out-of-court settlement with the estate of a Las Vegas online auctioneer who was selling counterfeit copies of his art.

“I managed to do this. Other people don’t even want to get involved,” Sassone said, adding there was none of the elation he expected because the case took so long. “I am a persistent individual if my rights are infringed. I was able to take it to the end.”

Fraudulent art work is rampant on online auction platforms, including both copies of famous artists’ work with vague or misleading descriptions as to their origins, and reproductions of work by living artists’ lifted from websites without permission. Most victims shrug off the fraud: Sassone is highly unusual in having filed suit.

In 2014, he stumbled across copies of his work online. He was puzzled over where they came from and how they could be offered for a few hundred dollars when his own limited-edition silkscreen graphics sell for thousands. Sassone, a 78-year-old Italian-American who moved to Toronto in 2005 when he married a Canadian, paints urban landscapes and waterscapes in an impressionistic style, using both oils and watercolours, and produces original silkscreen multiples. When he investigated further, he realized the images online were photographic reproductions of the plates from a 1980 catalogue dedicated to his romantic paintings of Italian cities and Californian scenes. Meanwhile, the signatures on these reproductions were forgeries of his own signature – copying that he calls “not bad” but definitely not his handwriting.

“It has taken me 50 years to build my signature. When someone steals from you, they steal your life,” Sassone said.

He traced the unauthorized reproductions to Art & Jewelry Auction House in Las Vegas and had friends in the United States and Canada order a few as evidence. He counted 2,192 sales on several online auction platforms and calculated that the fraud had earned more than $800,000. Then he filed suit.

Lawyers for auctioneer Darrell T. Coker, who died in 2019 while the case was ongoing, responded with a counter suit, asking a court to dismiss Sassone’s case as a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation), the term for a frivolous suit intended to intimidate or censor an opponent.

Coker’s lawyer argued that if Coker was selling the reproductions – which they never conceded – the images were already in the public domain, that Coker’s distribution of them was in the public interest and that Sassone’s suit would infringe on his freedom of expression.

“It was used as a strategic weapon to delay litigation,” said Dominic Gentile, Sassone’s Las Vegas lawyer. “It accomplished its purpose because Mr. Coker passed away before we could take his deposition.”

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Nevada, which in 2019 upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the SLAPP and freedom-of-expression arguments: “We further hold that advertising and selling counterfeit artwork as original work is not in direct connection with an issue of public interest,” the court ruled.

After Coker’s death, his estate agreed to settle the case privately in late 2020, handing over a piece of Las Vegas real estate worth more than $300,000. Sassone recently received the money from the sale of that property. Gentile said the settlement did more than cover legal costs but does not sufficiently compensate the artist for the damage to his art and reputation.

“It’s not anything compared to the damage that was done to Marco. [But] we were thinking of sending a message to others who are thinking of counterfeiting,” Gentile said.

Few artists bother pursuing counterfeiters not only because of the legal costs but also because of the embarrassment.

“If you publicize the fact there are bootlegs out there, you shoot yourself in the foot. Some collectors may be passionate about your art, but others may go elsewhere,” Gentile said. As well, counterfeits on auction sites can drive an artist’s prices down by creating the impression their work should be available more cheaply.

For Sassone, there is relief that the episode is now closed – and fodder for a chapter in his forthcoming memoirs.

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