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'SpongeBob' Designer Targeted In Class Action Over Art Reproductions (Exclusive)

Lawsuit against celebrity artist raises eternal question, "What is the meaning of authenticity?"

"SpongeBob SquarePants"
Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Todd White, the former SpongeBob SquarePants lead designer whose wacky observational stylings have made him a favorite among celebrities, has gotten into a quirky legal situation. The artist is now the defendant in a $5 million class action lawsuit that claims he deceived thousands of art buyers into buying reproductions of his art. White is said to have acknowledged he was selling reproductions but the class action asserts there's a difference between an authentic and an inauthentic copy of an original.

White got his start working at Warner Bros. on the animated series Tiny Toons. Later, he was lead character designer on SpongeBob SquarePants, where he was credited as being one of the prime influencers behind the visual style that made the Nickelodeon show a mega-hit. He then broke out on his own, having international gallery shows, becoming the official artist of the Grammy Awards in 2007, and creating “Rat-Pack meets Picasso” art that attracted a number of celebrity-buyers. Among those who have reportedly purchased his work are Catherine Zeta Jones, Larry King, Vin Diesel and Drew Carey.

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Lately, White has become just as famous for his legal problems as his art. In particular, he was sued by his art dealer, who claimed White sent ninjas to take over her gallery. White then countersued, alleging the gallery made a fortune selling copies of his work.

White is now being sued over making his own copies of his work.

According to a class action lawsuit filed by Carole Harris on behalf of herself and others, White issued numerous limited-edition "giclees," a high-resolution digital scan of an original piece, substituting it onto a substrate, and applying a protective varnish sealant.

No problem so far. White advertised the works were gilcees, and according to the complaint filed in California federal court, "consumers nationwide were willing to pay thousands of dollars for mere reproductions of original art."

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But the plaintiffs say that the reproductions weren't authentic. Each was supposed to be hand-signed by White himself, but instead White had others, including his former manager "trained to 'paint' Mr. White's signature." It's further alleged that White never personally touched many of the giclees, said to number somewhere between 600 and 1200.

The lawsuit, which claims at least $5 million in damages, goes on to say, "Had art purchasers and the public at large known the actual facts surrounding the 'authenticity' of the limited edition giclees at issue, they never would have paid such high prices for mere digital reproductions untouched by the artist."

Of course, even if the allegations are true, White wouldn't be the first artist to direct underlings to make art under a false signature. That stuff has been going on for centuries, from painter apprentices during the Renaissance age to Andy Warhol's factory in the 1960s. Still, since art has become a big business, warranties under the Uniform Commercial Code get routinely discussed among art lawyers these days. This particular lawsuit claims violations of California's Business & Professional Code as well as California's Consumers Legal Remedy Act, section 1770.

White couldn't be reached for comment.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner

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