The Judd Foundation sues galleries over ‘permanent’ fingerprint damage to $850,000 aluminum sculpture

MANHATTAN — The Judd Foundation is suing companion galleries Tina Kim, based in New York, and Kukje, based in Seoul, over irreversible damage an aluminum Donald Judd sculpture incurred while in their possession, according to court documents filed last week in New York Supreme Court. 

The work, Untitled, 1991, is part of the late artist’s Menziken series, a roughly 9-by-39 inch rectangular sculpture made of anodized aluminum and acrylic which was “disfigured by fingerprints,” according to the written complaint brought against the galleries. The suit, in which the Judd Foundation is arguing the galleries committed breach of contract, was originally filed in Texas but was dismissed over jurisdictional issues.

According to court documents, the anodized aluminum surface of the sculpture requires careful, gloved handling, and the fingerprints, which were not swifty addressed by an art conservator, led to irreversible damage. “Any fingerprints on the anodized aluminum surface must be removed quickly or over time the oils in the fingerprints can react with the surface and leave permanent, disfiguring, irreversible marks,” the lawsuit claims. 

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Objects Conservator Meaghan Perry confirmed human fingerprints can cause permanent damage to such an artwork if left untreated. Metals like copper, steel and aluminum are highly reactive, she said, making them susceptible to oils, salts and acids contained in human fingerprints. For example, a person loading a bullet into a gun for mere seconds may leave a traceable fingerprint that can later be used for forensic purposes, she said. 

“No one’s wiped off these oils, so they’ve had time to just really affect the surface of the metal. They eat through the oxide layer on the aluminum, that passivating film that protects it and keeps it from corroding, [making] it susceptible to environmental attack in a way that it would not normally be if no one had touched it,” said Perry. 

The work, which cost $850,000, was originally loaned to the Tina Kim and Kukje galleries, operated by members of the same family, in 2015 in order to be sold. The Judd Foundation “selects, from time to time, certain sculptures considered ancillary to its core collection to offer for sale to help support the Foundation’s mission,” according to the lawsuit.

The Judd Foundation released the sculpture from its location at a moving and storage company in Switzerland in 2015, then entered into two consecutive consignment renewals with the galleries until ultimately terminating the agreement in 2018. During that time, Untitled, 1991, traveled to the Frieze Art Fair in New York, to Art Basel Miami Beach and to Abu Dhabi to be shown at the galleries’ joint booths, but never sold. The sculpture was then sent back to the Judd Foundation in Marfa where a conservator noticed the damage upon uncrating. 

While it was on loan, the work passed through art storage companies which perform routine condition reports upon an object’s arrival and departure to note any relevant damages for insurance purposes and more. Three separate condition reports, one from 2017 and two from 2018, detailed fingerprints on the work, but the Judd Foundation was never notified. The consignment agreement held the galleries responsible for the cleaning and conversation of the work while in its possession, with the stipulation that the Judd Foundation provide written consent for any conservation treatment. 

The consignment agreements stated the Kukje Gallery would be held responsible for any possible damage to the work, including any compensation not covered by its insurance company. To date, its insurance company has paid 80% of the cost of the damages, or $680,000, but the galleries still owe a remaining sum of $170,000. The foundation is also seeking an additional $100,00 to cover attorney’s fees and interest — the market value of the work has now increased to $950,000, the lawsuit claims. 

In situations where a piece is beyond repair, as the Judd foundation is arguing, the work in question is often declared a total loss and deaccessioned, or removed, from its permanent collection. It remains to be seen what will become of Untitled, 1991. A representative from the Judd Foundation said while the care of Donald Judd’s work is its primary concern, the foundation does not comment on individual circumstances. 

But considering Judd is no longer living to see the piece remade, or refinished, to give final approval on his work of art, and contemporary industrial methods may not yield similar results, there are limited options moving forward, said Perry. 

“It’s something that was selected by and approved by the artist in his lifetime, and no longer having the artist living really complicates what can and should be done to the piece,” said Perry. 

As an artist, Judd was known for his specificity in terms of materiality and intention, having left behind ample written material on his artistic processes and opinions on the relationship between the artist and the museum. During his lifetime he produced a body of work that encapsulates his ideas, meaning the foundation has concrete examples of what he wanted to reference. 

A past example that provides some insight on Judd’s opinions about who might reproduce his work includes the Guggenheim’s Panza collection — a postwar American art collection consisting of work by Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, and more. Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo’s collection consisted of works designed by Judd but fabricated without his approval at the request of the collector. Judd rejected the work, which the Guggenheim ultimately “decommissioned” in 2020. 

The issues surrounding artistic ownership, copyright and ethics of legacy preservation are complex, said Perry, and one faced by many foundations dedicated to artists that are no longer living. While the works of Judd are finite and now there will be one fewer, the theoretical argument of recreation versus deaccession gets back to honoring a deceased artist and their ideas, she said.  

“This is not just the preservation of a physical object. This is the preservation of an idea, of a concept,” said Perry. 

Tina Kim and Kukje galleries did not respond to requests for comment by press time.