A Renowned Chinese Artist Has Been Found Guilty of Brazen Plagiarism After He Made Millions From Copying a Belgian Artist’s Work
Ye Yongqing must pay $690,000 in damages to Christian Silvain, the highest sum that has ever been awarded for a case relating to fine arts in China.
A Beijing court has ordered the prominent Chinese artist Ye Yongqing to pay €650,000 ($696,000) in damages to the Belgian artist Christian Silvain, after it found that 122 of his works had plagiarized 87 of Silvain’s. The now-disgraced artist must also publicly apologize in the widely circulated Chinese newspaper Global Times.
The trial took place at Beijing Intellectual Property Court on November 22, 2022, and the verdict was delivered on August 24. The settlement sum is the highest that has ever been awarded for a case relating to fine arts in China.
Ye, aged 65, is a well established artist in China and professor of oil painting at Chongqing-based Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. It is alleged that he began copying Silvain in the 1990s, when he first saw an exhibition of his paintings in Paris and acquired a catalogue. Around this time, Ye’s work began to take on striking compositional similarities to Silvain’s grid-formatted paintings and included many of the same motifs. These included fragments of text, trees, birds, birdcages, red splotches, red crosses, and figures standing behind bars, all produced in a childlike style.
Silvain, 73, was first tipped off by a gallerist in Amsterdam who had contacted him to say he’d seen a “substandard” version of one of his paintings, Silvain told Het Laatste Nieuws in 2020. “When I saw it myself, I immediately knew that something was wrong,” he said.
Though the Dutch copyright organization Sabam was able to help him have the painting removed, it wasn’t long before a similar work was located in London. “That was at the largest exhibition of Chinese art,” said Silvain, who didn’t specify when or where the show took place. “They had to dismantle it completely when the deception came out.” He added that he hoped to stop Yongqing from being able to exhibit in Europe and had requested that Sotheby’s and Christie’s stop offering his work.
Shortly after Silvain went public with these complaints, Ye’s work stopped being exhibited in Chinese museums and he has not had a show since 2018, according to Het Laatste Nieuws. Although Ye has admitted that he had been influenced by Silvain, he responded to the backlash by suing for defamation at a Belgian court. The complaint was never resolved and Ye has not yet commented on the latest ruling in Beijing.
The settlement, which according to The Brussels Times is much less than Silvain’s lawyers had hoped to achieve, pales in comparison to the estimated $15 million that Ye has made from selling his work. His most expensive painting at auction brought in just over £1 million at XiLingYinShe Auction Co. in 2011, and many of his works have sold for between $200,000 and $500,000.
Since Silvain publicly accused Ye of plagiarism, his work has become more popular in China. In June, he set a new auction record of $46,459 for Death in Venice (1983) at the Chinese auction house Shanghai Jiahe Auction Co. In a post on his Instagram, Silvain said he was “pleased” with the result of the case, although it remains unclear whether his lawyers intend to appeal the ruling for a larger sum.
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