A recent settlement sheds some light on art – not about censorship or decency, but when graffiti can be removed, or in this case, destroyed. Solo practitioner Jeannine Chanes of the Law Offices of Jeannine Chanes recently secured a victory and substantial award on behalf of plaintiffs in reaction to the destruction of certain Long Island City, Queens buildings owned by developer Gerald Wolkoff, the defendant. The plaintiffs were a group of street artists who decorated dilapidated buildings in the area, which ultimately became an attraction known as the 5 Pointz aerosol art gallery.

Last week, Senior District Judge Frederic Block awarded $6.75 million to the plaintiffs, maintaining that pursuant to the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), the 45 graffiti-laden works were viewed as “meritorious” and its stature must be recognized “by art experts, other members of the artistic community, or some cross-section of society.”

The buildings could not be protected from destruction by VARA, but Judge Block evidently took issue with Wolkoff’s testimony. According to court notes:

I had observed his demeanor on the witness stand and his persistent refusal to directly answer the questions posed to him by me and under cross-examination, I did not believe him.”  

Block also acknowledged that Wolkoff could have proceeded with the demolition legally and without major repercussions, had “…he received his demolition permits and waited 10 months later, the Court would not find that he acted willfully.”

The case was Cohen et al. v G & M Realty L.P. et anos, Case No. 13-CV-05612 (FB) (RLM). The defendant was represented by Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti, LLP, who appealed the matter to the Second Circuit.