Real Estate Tycoon Must Pay $450,000 in Chinese Sculpture Knock-Off Scheme

Igor Olenikoff. Photo: © Guide Dogs for the Blind, via Flickr.


Why commission original public art when you can steal an artist’s idea and outsource the work to China? That seems to have been the philosophy of California tycoon (and Forbes rich list laureate) Igor Olenicoff, who has been found guilty this week of systematic trademark infringement. Sculptor Don Wakefield has won $450,000 in damages after Olenicoff was found to have cloned “at least” six of his large-scale abstract stone sculptures to decorate his various properties, according to Courthouse News.

Back in 2004, Wakefield says that he had been trying to hustle up business with California’s real estate developers, and sent emails to Olenicoff’s company, Olen Properties, with links to his works, including Untitled (1992), a large amoeba-like pierced stone sculpture piece he had co-created with Joseph “Chick” Glickman. Four years later, he came upon something that looked very like Untitled at a property in Newport Beach. The likeness was so close that Wakefield says he at first believed it to be actually be his original. The name, however, had been changed to Human Natures: Many Faces, and it was dated 2005.

It was only after finding further copies of his work that he fully pieced together what had happened, according to his complaint:

In or about January 2010, Wakefield discovered three copies of ‘Untitled’ at an Olen Properties location in Irvine, California. Two of these copies were unaltered copies of ‘Untitled,’ and the third is an unauthorized derivative work which was entitled ‘A Tear Must Fall.’ It was only upon discovery of these three sculptures that Wakefield realized that the sculpture he discovered in Newport Beach was, in fact, an unauthorized copy and not the original.

In 2011, the Art Newspaper reported that Olenicoff declined to comment on the copying allegations, but did admit that Human Natures: Many Faces was “one of nine works made by the Chinese craftsman, three of which were bought by Olenicoff.” According to the book Risk and Uncertainty in the Art World, however, Olen’s information submitted to the City of Brea in relation to the sculptures (required because it was fulfilling percent-for-art laws), stated that the author of both Human Natures: Many Faces and A Tear Must Fall was one Zhou Hong. The developer had provided the following description of Zhou’s practice:

His works are so highly respected that Zhou Hong was asked to display several pieces demonstrating his artistic abilities in the Olympic Garden during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Zhou Hong has many sculptures that are currently displayed in public buildings and specific outdoor locations throughout China.

A second case against Olenicoff hits courts June 24, this time from another sculptor, John Raimondi, whose treatment at the hands of the billionaire sounds, if anything, as if it might be even more egregious. According to Raimondi, the tycoon had contacted him back in 2001 to make editions of his large-scale works Dian and Ceres for his properties to fulfill percent-for-art requirements (the commission was worth between $100,000 and $250,000). The artist’s complaint alleges that the two men met twice about the commission, and that he provided detailed photos and drawings of the works, at Olenicoff’s request, only to have the developer cancel further meetings. What he says happened next seems to follow the pattern described by Wakefield pretty closely:

Raimondi discovered the infringing sculptures alleged herein beginning in or about September 2010. At that time, Raimondi was contacted by a representative from the City of Brea who noticed the works at defendants’ buildings which attributed credit to a Chinese artist. The representative was aware that the works had previously been submitted to the City of Brea by defendants listing Raimondi as the artist and thus advised of the infringement. At no point did Raimondi authorize the defendants’ manufacture, replication or public display of the sculptures.

As a side note, this is not Olenicoff’s first brush with the law. He admitted to large-scale tax avoidance back in 2007, and was sentenced to two years probation, 120 hours of community service, and forced to pay $52 million in back taxes, interest, and penalties. According to the Orange County Register, the billionaire blamed UBS for “aggressively convincing him to move about $200 million of his fortune offshore to avoid U.S. taxes.” He is widely believed to have gotten off lightly.

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