On the morning of May 26, workers entered Nica’s restaurant in the Stanhope Hotel and began gutting the interior. They removed the carpet, the tables, the banquets, the Gio Ponti light fixtures and six paintings of cafe life in Paris that were copied from a book to look exactly like original works by the artist Jean Hélion. The contents of the room were carted off to a warehouse in Harlem. André Balazs, the co-owner of Nica’s, which is located in the Stanhope, on Fifth Avenue across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said that the room is going to be redone in a lighter palette. He added that the former décor, although less than one year old, “just didn’t work for the hotel.”
But to those who have been following a nine-month dispute between Mr. Balazs and Jacqueline Hélion, the widow of the artist whose paintings were faithfully duplicated for the elegant restaurant, the timing of the redecoration appears a tad suspicious. On behalf of the Hélion estate, the Artists Rights Society, a Manhattan-based watchdog organization, is preparing to sue Mr. Balazs for infringement of copyright, trademark and related rights over the six paintings. Even though the paintings have been removed, Michael Remer, a lawyer for A.R.S., said that the organization intends to go ahead with the lawsuit. Ultimately, he hopes to get the court to order Mr. Balazs to destroy the paintings. “I don’t know their position or intent with regard to this,” Mr. Balazs said about the A.R.S. lawsuit, “but, in general, I support their position on copyright.”
At the center of the dispute is Ms. Hélion, a 73-year-old widow who lives in Paris. Allowing that “any artist has a right to copy another artist,” Ms. Hélion said in an interview over the phone from Paris that what galls her is that people mistook the six paintings as authorized copies of the originals.
“Two Paris dealers dined there one evening last year and saw them and thought, of course, that I was at the bottom of this, having had them copied for the hotel,” she said. “This is rather awful because I had never authorized anything like that. Had I, I would have insisted that the artist’s name [who reproduced the paintings] be mentioned and that they were copies. There has to be a minimum recognition of the fact somewhere. Using them, plagiarizing them and then not giving the [original] artist any credit-that I thought was rather shady.”
For his part, Mr. Balazs maintains that his intentions have been misinterpreted by Ms. Hélion. “No one who is a Hélion expert would argue that they were close to the originals,” he said from his office at the Mercer Hotel, one of his other properties. He pointed out that he is on the board of the New York Academy of Art and a friend to many artists. “They were never meant to be forgeries,” he said of the Hélion reproductions. “They are not remotely like that. It would be a violation of everything, the whole spirit of what art is about, to do a knockoff.” Then he added: “I personally didn’t even like them very much. It didn’t matter who painted them. It was just a look.”
The contretemps started late last summer when a friend of Ms. Hélion who was visiting New York read an article in The New York Times about Mr. Balazs that was accompanied by a photograph showing some of the paintings in Nica’s restaurant. The paintings, showing men and women in outdoor scenes, appeared to be copies of those originally executed in the 1940′s and 1950′s by Jean Hélion, who abandoned abstract painting during World War II when, as a German prisoner of war, he had visions of daily life in Paris.
“I was really quite astounded because I happened to know where the originals are,” said Ms. Hélion. “The originals are in various private collections. One is in Switzerland. The others are in France. I was a little embarrassed at the thought that they might walk in there one day and see copies of their paintings on the wall.”
Ms. Hélion enlisted her stepson, Nicolas Hélion, to go to the restaurant to urge the management to install a plaque explaining that the paintings were copies. “Hélion’s son came in and loved them,” Mr. Balazs recalled. “He actually asked that we put up a little sign saying that they were the work of his father and maybe a little biography of his father.”
“Our request was that the pictures be taken down and eventually destroyed,” counters Ms. Hélion. “Or else, if they were left, there had to be some indication as to what they were. Almost a year had gone by and nothing ever happened. These copies may turn up on the market passed off as authentic Hélions-especially as there are imitated signatures on them. In Europe, that is a criminal offense. If they turned up here, I wouldn’t have any trouble having them seized.”
Mr. Balazs said that he had made reference to the origin of the paintings on the backs of menus at Nica’s. He also pointed out that the paintings were made on different-sized canvases than the originals. Mr. Remer, the lawyer for the A.R.S., is not so sure that is defensible.
“I can only tell you that whatever he says along those lines has nothing to do with the fact that he has copied them so closely as to constitute an infringement,” Mr. Remer said. “He also put the [original] artist’s name on the bottom of the paintings. If you make a derivative work and copy it so closely as to constitute a derivative work, under copyright law, without a license, [it] is an infringement. If you add the artist’s name to it, you get into matters of trademark as well. The dimensions, or anything along those lines, are just red herrings.”
This was news to Shawn Hausman, the interior designer who came up with the idea of using the Hélion reproductions to create a “jazz look” for the dining room. “It was my understanding that, as a legal thing, as long as you change the size, it is obviously not the original painting,” he said. Mr. Hausman, who is currently redesigning the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles-another Balazs hotel-said that he found the paintings in a 1992 monograph, Jean Hélion , by Henri-Claude Cousseau. “The way I work is that I create a character in history for my interior design,” Mr. Hausman explained. “The idea was about a jazz-lover entrepreneur who had come in around 1950 and just sort of brought that element of newness to that stiff old formal décor. Hence the Gio Ponti lights, which were originally designed for Roseland. I was trying to find a graphic or painted image that reflected to me something that was of the period and was more unusual than, you know, like Rothko.”
Mr. Hausman arranged for Michael Herstand to paint the copies. An artist who lives in the East Village, Mr. Herstand had worked for Mr. Balazs on a group of copies of modern masters that were exhibited as a conceptual art piece in Japan in 1988. He also made copies of paintings by Egon Schiele, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso for the nightclub MK, in which Mr. Balazs was an investor. “The idea was to make them [the paintings in Nica's restaurant] look exactly like Hélions,” said Mr. Herstand. “People have given my copies good reviews over the years. The way Shawn often works is to create a fiction. The fiction was that these have been found in various states of disrepair and they had been neglected for some time, which is roughly parallel to what has happened to Hélion’s paintings in reality.”
Those are fighting words to Ms. Hélion. She points out that work by her late husband is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was shown in a solo exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries on the Upper East Side two years ago. In many ways an artist’s artist, Jean Hélion was studied and loved by many of his peers and by subsequent generations of artists. Hélion lived in New York during the 1940′s and was married to Peggine Vail, the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim.
“When Mr. Balazs heard that the Artists Rights Society was getting worked up, he said, ‘I don’t care, sue me. It is good publicity for the restaurant,’” Ms. Hélion said. “That’s all very well, but what kind of publicity are we getting out of this? It is a source of embarrassment for me with these collectors. I’ve had to tell a lot of people that I was not behind this. One wouldn’t expect this in the United States. You expect this sort of thing in Southeast Asia, where there is no copyright and anything goes.”