An artist claims Maurizio Cattelan copied his banana artwork. The case could now go to court

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Almost three years ago, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan sparked one of the art world’s biggest viral moments when he sold a banana taped to a wall for $120,000 at Art Basel Miami.

But Joe Morford, an artist from Glendale, California, claims that the world-renowned artist copied his own 2000 artwork entitled “Banana & Orange.” Now a federal judge in Florida’s Southern District has ruled that Morford can proceed with a case against Cattelan, saying Morford “reasonably alleges that there are similarities in the (few) protected elements” of his artwork.

If it goes to trial, the banana showdown will take place in Miami, where Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr. denied Cattelan’s motion to dismiss the case last Wednesday.

“Luckily for the court, the question of whether a banana taped to the wall can be art is more of a metaphysical question,” Scola wrote in his ruling. “But the legal issue in court can be just as difficult – has Morford made sufficient allegations that Cattelan’s banana hurt his banana?”

Morford is seeking over $390,000 in damages — the total of Cattelan’s sales for three editions of the artwork — as well as court and travel costs.

Maurizio Cattelan attends the 2020 Armory Show in New York. Recognition: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Cattelan attracted international attention when he sold three nearly identical versions of his banana artwork at the 2019 art fair, with the last piece fetching $150,000. The artwork, titled “Comedian,” became instantly recognizable when it was memed across the internet, and made headlines again after a performance artist ripped the fruit off the wall and ate it. That didn’t stop sales, however, as Cattelan wasn’t selling the original banana, but rather a certificate of authenticity and instructions on how to attach the part, including the exact angle and height to glue the piece of fruit on. Since then, “Comedian” has found its way into the Guggenheim collection in New York thanks to an anonymous donor.
Emmanuel Perrotin, founder of Paris-based art gallery Perrotin, which represents Cattelan, told CNN after the artwork’s debut that bananas are “a symbol of global trade, an ambiguity, as well as a classic device for humor.” He added that Cattelan transforms everyday objects into “vehicles of joy and criticism”.

But Morford claims “Comedian” plagiarized his own artwork “Banana & Orange,” which was created nearly two decades earlier. “Banana & Orange” features the eponymous fruit taped to a wall on painted green backgrounds.

“I did that in 2000. But some guy steals my junk and pimps it for over 120,000 in 2019,” Morford wrote in a 2019 public Facebook post that included a picture of the artwork. “Plagiarism a lot?”

According to court documents, Morford, who is representing himself, registered the artwork with the US Copyright Office and posted the work on his website, Facebook, and YouTube accounts long before Cattelan created “Comedian.”

Cattelan’s lawyers have argued that Morford has “no valid copyright” to the elements of the artwork – the banana and the duct tape stuck to a wall – but the court ruled that Morford “might be able to do that.” Claiming copyright for the expression “this idea” through the “selection, coordination, (and) arrangement” of the elements.

“While using silver tape to attach a banana to a wall may not represent the highest level of creativity, its absurd and absurd nature meets the ‘minimal level of creativity’ required to be considered original,” writes school.

While Morford’s case was allowed to proceed, Scola’s judgment did not affect its merits at trial. If Morford can’t prove in court that Cattelan had access to Banana & Orange, he’ll have to show that the works are “strikingly similar,” according to court filings. Cattelan has argued that the earlier play was “not original enough” to warrant protection.

Attorneys for Cattelan and Morford did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Caption above: People posing in front of Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian” presented by Perrotin Gallery and on view at Art Basel Miami 2019 at the Miami Beach Convention Center on December 6, 2019 in Miami Beach, Florida.

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