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October 01 2013

Locked Up for Linking? US Journalist Faces Prosecution

This post was authored by ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Agnes Callamard. An earlier version of the text appeared on the ARTICLE 19 website.

US journalist Barrett Brown is currently being prosecuted for doing something many of us do every day: posting a link on the Internet. If he is convicted, the right to share information online in the US could be seriously endangered.

Campaign poster by Kaytee Nesmith, Christopher Chang, ABCNT, Freeanons and Somerset Bean via freebarretbrown.com

Campaign poster by Kaytee Nesmith, Christopher Chang, ABCNT, Freeanons and Somerset Bean via freebarretbrown.com

Brown is the founder of Project PM, a crowd-sourced think-tank which investigates the relationships between private security firms and the US government. Some of the charges against Brown relate to a hyperlink he posted on his Project PM chat room channel. The link led to a zip file containing information hacked from intelligence contractor Stratfor Global Intelligence. Although it is acknowledged that Brown himself did not participate in the hacking, because the zip file he posted included emails listing stolen credit card information, he has been charged with trafficking stolen authentication features, access device fraud, and aggravated identity theft. Brown has been in pre-trial federal detention since September 2012.

Next year, Brown will stand trial on various charges that together carry a maximum sentence of 105 years in prison. The outcome could set a disturbing precedent for future cases of this nature.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Internet itself is a series of hyperlinks. The use of links – references to other materials published online – is the mainstay of the Internet and a basic feature of online interaction and journalistic practice. Linking is an essential part of the right to receive and impart information and ideas. This is a fundamental right that is protected under both international human rights law and the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Convicting Brown for posting this link could have a devastatingly chilling effect on free speech online and on investigative journalism.

The importance of Brown’s case has already been demonstrated by the recent events involving Johns Hopkins University professor Matthew Green. Earlier this month, Green received a request to remove a blog post he'd written criticising the National Security Agency because it “linked to classified material”. The only classified material Green had linked to was information already available to the public in news reports published by the Guardian and the New York Times. This incident underlines the urgent need for the USA to explicitly protect the right to link in federal law.

More broadly, It is a well-established principle that journalists should never be held liable for publishing and disseminating classified and leaked information, unless it has been obtained criminally (through fraud, for example). This protection is vital to ensuring the sustainability of investigative journalism. In this case, it has not been alleged that Brown was involved in the hacking; he merely posted a link to information which was available elsewhere. Linking to information that has already been published on the Internet should be strongly protected, especially when this activity is carried out for journalistic purposes.

In addition to these charges against Brown, a district court judge in Dallas, Texas issued an order in September 2013 prohibiting Brown and his defence team from making extrajudicial statements about the case and from discussing it with the media. Advocacy groups including ARTICLE 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists fear that this order signals yet again the US Government’s aggressive protection of national surveillance networks at the expense of the free speech and press freedom guaranteed under international law.

September 25 2013

Worried About Surveillance? Welcome to the Indian World, Says Sherman Alexie

The original version of this post appeared on the PEN American Center website.

This week, author Sherman Alexie joined PEN American Center and the American Library Association in a Google Hangout on Air to celebrate Banned Books Week in the United States. Alexie is perhaps best known for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, an autobiographical story that follows a young Native American student as he leaves his reservation to enroll in a white school. The National Book Award-winning novel has the dubious honor of being one of the most frequently banned and challenged books in the US every year since its publication in 2007.

credit: Tulane Public Relations

Sherman Alexie. Photo by Tulane Public Relations, republished with permission.

Alexie is not just a fiction writer but also an accomplished poet and screenwriter who spoke eloquently—and hilariously—about a wide range of subjects, including censorship, sex, poverty, Native American culture, and civil liberties. He was especially concerned about the June 2013 revelations of the extent of US government surveillance, and he was equally troubled by the use of our personal information by global corporations. Surveillance has always been present for Native Americans and minorities in the US, he argues, and the NSA's spying program is only exposing the majority of the country to what others have long experienced:

When you start talking about a surveillance state, certainly on an overall level I get worried and suspicious about it. But I also think, “Welcome to the Indian world!” All of a sudden all these white folks are feeling a slight taste of what it is to be black, living where they're being watched and judged and potentially a suspect. But of course the government has been spying on us. I was not shocked by the report. In fact, I was shocked that it wasn't bigger.

Internet culture and internet technology have made it so much easier to spy on us and we willingly participate in it. We sign up with these places. Google scares me and I'm on Google. Facebook scares me. I get worried when capitalistic interests are the ones who contain all of our speech. These are giant corporations whose primary motivation is money, which it should be, but when you're talking about economic interests, you're talking about people who may not necessarily be loyal to their customers. So I worry about all of it. I worry that the world's largest bookseller is in court trying to become the repository for the CIA's online records. Do you really want to be buying your books from the same place that stores the CIA's records? For me, it's becoming one global thing which is going to control all of us. I turn into a leftist, paranoid conspiracy theorist and it makes me paranoid. It makes me feel like an Indian although I am already an Indian.

The full video of the Google Hangout on Air with Sherman Alexie is available here at PEN.org. You can listen to Alexie speak about surveillance at minute 32.

June 18 2013

VIDEO: Experts Speak on Role of Whistleblowers

The original version of this post appeared on Oxford-based blog Free Speech Debate.

In early June, former CIA technical assistant Edward Snowden outed himself as the person who leaked information from the US National Security Agency (NSA) revealing large-scale surveillance programs that reportedly obtained user data from tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple and telcos like Verizon.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden told The Guardian.

The revelations are explosive, but Snowden is not the first whistleblower to leak information to the public about government operations. We interviewed several former intelligence professionals and whistleblowers who discussed reasons for and against going public with sensitive information.

When is revealing secret information justified?

The US has no blanket law governing the secrecy of classified government information concerning national security. Instead, most serving officers are required to take an oath on the Constitution. Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and an outspoken defender of whistleblowers and alternative media sources, argues here that this gives the potential whistleblower a greater role in interpreting whether a leak is justified.

Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who blew the whistle on the NSA's failed Internet data analysis programme Trailblazer, agreed with this sentiment, explaining that he took an oath to protect the American people.

“I did not take an oath to make Americans feel safe again,” he said. “I did take an oath to keep Americans out of harms way.”

But Thomas Fingar, former deputy director of the US National Intelligence for Analysis and chairman of the National Intelligence Council, was at pains to emphasise that officials are obliged to report waste, incompetence, and abuse and that all branches of government have procedures for raising other kinds of concerns. In his opinion, leaking secret information is therefore not justified.

“You are obliged to report abuses… and follow the official procedures,” said Fingar, winner of the 2013 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. “This is required by law. But going to the newspaper because I have a journalist's phone number and don't know how to properly report this – that is wrong.”

What secrets are worth keeping?

Secrecy laws should never intentionally suppress evidence of political or military failures. Todd E. Pierce, a US military defence counsel who is regularly called upon to represent those accused of aiding and abetting terrorists, reminded us that during the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers exposed unconstitutional actions taken by US government and military officials concerning US interventions in Vietnam and neighboring countries.

Until revealed by Daniel Ellsberg, congressmen were often unable to access the information. This hindered their ability to make policy judgements.

However, there are instances when it is justified to keep a secret. Protecting the sources of intelligence and operational secrets – including some nuclear and military capabilities and procedures – are important to keep, Drake said. Fingar, Pierce and McGovern included technological needs, spies and sources in this category.

“Many things are perishable, that information can be released quickly,” Fingar noted. “Other information having to do with sources and methods ought to remain secret for quite some time.”

McGovern added: “Some things ought to be secrets. We had some very helpful Soviet Spies that were recruited in my day. God forbid that information would have gotten out. Not only to endanger them, but to endanger our sources.”

Can speaking out be a crime? Experts also commented on the role of whistleblowers within the media context. While it may be difficult to draw a line between aiding terrorists and promoting transparency and accountability around national security practices, the government has responsibilities to preserve a free press.

Does the media effectively inform public debate?

The media has a great responsibility to provide balanced information to enable citizens to make decisions. But Fingar, who in a previous capacity was responsible for intelligence dealing with potential pandemics and forced migrations, warned that the government’s interest in disseminating information as broadly as possible was not always compatible with the media’s interest in selling newspapers.

“The incredible lemming-like repetition without …there is a structural problem. But the mass media fulfill the incredibly important function of getting information to lots of different people,” Fingar said.

And in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, Pierce contended that embedding journalists with troops had occasionally prevented the media from exercising independent judgement.

McGovern highlighted the role of independent media in providing information otherwise not reported.

“The media has been entirely corrupted in my view,” he said.

Wikileaks as a whistleblower

Online activists increasingly take up the mantle of journalism, including investigative journalism outfits, bloggers, and of course, Wikileaks. The whistleblowing website's creator, Julian Assange, gave a brief speech at the 2013 Sam Adams Award Ceremony, defending his views on intelligence and whistleblowing.

“We're not merely at a war of intelligence agencies,” he asserted in the speech. “But a war of corrupt media and corrupt culture.”

For Drake, Wikileaks is a media outlet. “The power and elite structures don't like to have a mirror held up to them,” he said. “It is very dangerous in today's world to speak truth to power.”

Wikileaks is not the problem in itself, according to Fingar. The problem is the theft of information, and the loss of control over this information that goes with it, he said.

Pierce expressed concerns that Assange had risked chaos by naming countries that the US considered vulnerable to socio-economic or geographic shifts, thereby denying US policymakers the time needed for contingency planning.

Wikileaks could be useful to him as a military defence counsel, but senior government and military officials are officially banned from accessing Wikileaks. Pierce pointed to reports that information contained in Wikileaks could prove his clients innocent, yet not only is he banned from viewing the site but documents on Wikileaks are inadmissible as evidence in military trials.

“Some of the information on Wikileaks shows that some of the detainees [in Guantanamo] are in fact innocent. As a defense attorney in the military I don't to have access to that information,” he said.

Who promotes transparency?

The legitimacy of leaking information heavily depends on the circumstances and channels available. None of these four former intelligence professionals believes that this is a black-and-white topic. Some secrets need to be protected, and some information, if made available, has the power to change history. In a democracy, the media has traditionally provided the public with information that will help them make informed decisions as voters and citizens. As new media and other alternative channels for information emerge, they will play a significant if controversial role in exposing such information and promoting transparency by government actors, particularly when traditional media fail to do so.

June 08 2013

VIDEO: How the Trans-Pacific Partnership Could Hurt Internet Users

A new animated video by digital rights group Electric Frontier Foundation warns that the secretive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement being negotiated by the United States and ten governments from around the Pacific region, could have alarming consequences for Internet users.

The treaty's negotiations, which include input from corporations, are being kept under wraps, but a leaked draft [PDF] of the treaty from February 2011 and other leaked notes have given many advocates cause for concern over copyright enforcement provisions in the agreement's chapter on intellectual property.

According to the group, the treaty could make the Internet an intimidating place for the people and companies that use it. The agreement could encourage Internet service providers to police the activity of Internet users and block legitimate content with only a private notice from the supposed copyright holder in order to protect themselves from liability.

It could also make it illegal for users to work around technical measures put in place to prevent copyright infringement, such as unlocking a mobile phone in order to connect it to another carrier or modifying the format of an e-book to make it more accessible to those with disabilities.

The video, called “TPP: The Biggest Threat to the Internet You've Probably Never Heard Of”, is available on YouTube and can be found here:

May 01 2013

TPP: Biggest Threat to Global Internet Since ACTA?

This article was co-authored by Maira Sutton and Katitza Rodriguez of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Its original version can be found here.

The United States and ten governments from around the Pacific region are meeting yet again to hash out the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) on May 15-24 in Lima, Peru. The TPP is one of the worst global threats to the Internet since ACTA. Since negotiations have been secretive from the beginning of the process, advocates seeking to learn more about the agreement have been relying on a leaked draft [PDF] of the treaty from February 2011. Based on that text, some other leaked notes, and the undemocratic nature of the entire process, we have every reason to be alarmed about the copyright enforcement provisions contained in this multinational trade deal.

The TPP is likely to export some of the worst features of US copyright law to Pacific Rim countries: a broad ban on breaking digital locks on devices and creative works (even for legal purposes), a minimum copyright term of the lifetime of the creator plus seventy years (the current international norm is the lifetime plus fifty years), privatization of enforcement for copyright infringement, ruinous statutory damages with no proof of actual harm, and government seizures of computers and equipment involved in alleged infringement. Moreover, the TPP is worse than US copyright rules: it does not export the many balances and exceptions under US law that favor the public interest and act as safety valves in limiting rightsholders’ protections.

Adding insult to injury, the TPP's temporary copies provision will likely create chilling effects on how people and companies behave online and their basic ability to use and create on the Web. The stated goal of the TPP is to unite Pacific Rim countries by harmonizing tariffs and trade rules between them, but in reality, it's much more than that. The “intellectual property” chapter in this massive trade agreement will likely force changes to copyright and patent rules in each of the signatory countries. Accepting these new rules will not just re-write national laws, it will also restrict the possibility for countries to introduce more balanced copyright laws in the future.

This strategy may end up harming more proportionate laws in countries such as Chile, where a judicial order is required for ISPs to be held liable for copyright infringement or to take down content. Such systems better protect users and intermediaries from disproportionate or censorship-driven takedowns. If the final TPP text forces countries to adopt a privatized notice-and-takedown regime, this could imply the end of the Chilean system. It would also undermine Canada's notice-and-notice regime.

Film, music and other content industries can and will continue to use their economic and political power to get laws that protects their interests. They did it with SOPA and ACTA, and now it's happening with TPP [es]. It's going to be a challenge to defeat these policies, but users can do it. The TPP is slated for conclusion this October, but our goal is to get the worst of these copyright provisions out of it. The way to fight back is to show that we will not put up with this: to demand an open, transparent process that allows everyone, including experts from civil society, to analyze, question, and probe any initiatives to regulate the Internet. The secrecy must be stopped once and for all.

Digital rights advocacy groups around the world are working to change the TPP process and bring users’ concerns to the table. Users in any country can join a campaign led by Canadian NGO OpenMedia by clicking here. Users in the US can join EFF's campaign, directed at US Congress members, which calls for the immediate release of the text of the TPP and demands that this process become democratic and transparent.

Below is EFF's infographic highlighting the most problematic aspects of TPP. Please spread the word about how this agreement will impact you and your country. Right-click and save the image for the PNG file, or you can download the PDF version below. Remix it, build upon it, and get the word out. Let's protect and defend the Internet from this secret trade deal.

 

April 24 2013

Human Rights Verdict Could Affect Cisco in China

photo by kaoticsnow on a CC license

Photo by kaoticsnow. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 2011, two separate lawsuits were filed against Cisco Systems alleging that its technology enabled the government of China to monitor, capture, and kill Chinese citizens for their views and beliefs.

The first case involved practitioners of Falun Gong, a religion that is popularly known for its use of qigong exercises and has an estimated two million or more members in China. The suit was filed on behalf of Charles Lee, Guifu Liu, Ivy He, and several anonymous plaintiffs and accuses Cisco of marketing its technology to construct the Golden Shield, or what is popularly called the Great Firewall of China, while knowing that its products would be used to target dissidents. At least 2,000 members of the Falun Gong have been killed by the government of China, according to The New York Times, and many more have been tortured or harassed.

The second case (the Writers case) involved a group of internet writers and activists who were similarly targeted by censors of the Great Firewall. Du Daobin, Zhou Yuanzhi, Liu Xianbin, and anonymous co-plaintiffs claim to have been harassed, arrested, and tortured because of their online writings.

To what extent are these human rights violations attributable to technology provided by Cisco? The complaint in the Writers case states that Cisco began marketing its products to the Chinese government in 2002 when the Great Firewall was still in its infancy. The available evidence is especially compelling in the Falun Gong case. It includes a leaked Cisco marketing team PowerPoint slide explaining that its systems could be used to “Combat ‘Falun Gong’ evil religion and other hostiles.” Other documents reveal that Cisco may have customized its products to specifically monitor groups like the Falun Gong, and were so significant that the plaintiffs in the Falun Gong case amended their complaint in March 2012. (For an excellent backgrounder from 2011, read Jillian York's piece for EFF here.)

The plaintiffs in both cases sued under a variety of laws including the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a crucial 200 year-old law that has been successfully used to hold human rights violators accountable in US courts.

The ATS was used in several law suits in Nigeria involving a group of writers and activists who were jailed, tortured, or executed by the military regime in the mid-1990s for peacefully protesting the destruction of Niger Delta wetlands by Royal Dutch Shell and other international oil conglomerates. The claimants in these cases sued Shell, arguing that the company had aided and abetted the Nigerian government and violated international law.

When the Supreme Court agreed to revisit the ATS in Kiobel v. Shell—the latest of the string of Nigeria cases utilizing the Alien Tort Statute—both Cisco cases were put on hold in October 2011 because their outcome would be affected by the top court's ruling. Human rights activists feared the worst from the conservative court, and they were right to be afraid. In its decision, the court significantly narrowed the scope of the ATS by citing a principle called the “presumption against extraterritoriality”, a legal term of art that means that laws should be interpreted as only applying within the U.S. unless clearly stated otherwise. (Click here for an in-depth explanation of Kiobel at PEN.org.)

photo by longtrekhome on a CC license

Falun Dafa practitioners. Photo by longtrekhome. (CC BY 2.0)

The Supreme Court judges issued three separate concurring opinions in Kiobel, which do not have the force of law. These suggest that if there is a significant enough American interest, then a federal court could properly hear an ATS case. Cisco is headquartered in the U.S. and was selling its products abroad, so this seems like a significant interest for Americans. The victims, however, were Chinese nationals, although some of them now reside in the US. It is therefore unclear whether the plaintiffs would overcome the burden to show that Cisco's actions affected an American interest.

Even if US federal courts hold that the Alien Tort Statute does not apply to the Cisco cases, the plaintiffs in each suit also filed claims alleging violations of state law (in California and Maryland, respectively) and the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which governs the ability of companies to disclose private user data to government and law enforcement officials. On the surface, these claims are not nearly as strong as an ATS claim before Kiobel. In 2009, a judge in a California federal court held in Zheng v. Yahoo! that the ECPA does not apply abroad, even when information that is disclosed abroad passes through computer servers on American soil.

Before Kiobel, there was no guarantee that human rights victims could win an ATS case on the merits in federal court, and the cases often resulted in settlement. But we have now come to the point when critical human rights cases may not even be argued in U.S. courts at all. This is a terrible loss for human rights, and even a loss for corporations. Litigating the Cisco cases in open court would provide a vital human rights record for the global community about how tech firms operate.

There is another formidable hurdle: the legal team that defended Royal Dutch Shell in Kiobel, led by the former dean of Stanford Law School Kathleen Sullivan, is also defending Cisco.

Human rights are good for business. A 2012 open letter from a group of socially responsible investors representing over $548 billion in investments explicitly stated [PDF] that human rights can and should be protected by businesses. This goal was reinforced by the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which require companies to actively protect human rights, respect them, and provide remedies to victims of human rights abuses that result from actions by companies. Unfortunately, the facts in Kiobel and Cisco suggest that we are not there yet, and we need the courts to show us the way to go. In this sense, the Supreme Court has provided no real guidance.

 

January 25 2013

Colombia: Copyright Law Rejected by Constitutional Court

On Wednesday night, October 23, 2012, the Colombian Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional Articles 13 and 14 of the Law 1520, better known as Lleras Law 2.0, since it “violated the fundamental rights of expression and communication.” The proposed law provides for sanctions of online copyright infringement, in accordance with the Free Trade Agreement signed between Columbia and the United States.

Contra-copyright by Marco Gomes

Contra-copyright by Marco Gomes (CC BY 2.0)

The Court considered that Article 13, which forbade the broadcast of TV signals without express permission of the content's rights owners, and Article 14, which made illegal the breaking of Digital Right management (DRM)—technologies used to block access to copyrighted digital content—and the making private copies of even legally acquired content, constituted a breach of fundamental rights to education, information and equality.

The Court also declared that the entire process of passing the law was flawed for formal reasons, since it should have been treated as a statutory law and not an ordinary one, thus making void the rest of the law which is considered null.

This outcome is the result of a law suit filed by Senator Jorge Robledo before the Constitutional Court almost a year ago [es]. He argued that the law restricted the use of Internet to transmit information and forbade the broadcast of TV signals, limiting, without justification, citizens’ rights to access and divulge information.

It is also the result of a mobilization by netizens and civil rights organizations. Since the law passed the parliament, back in May, a campaign of “citizen interventions” and protests expressed widespread indignation against the law.

Yesterday, however, upon the announcement of the rejection of Lleras Law 2.0 by the Constitutional Court,  the Colombian blogosphere was in a celebratory mood. Blogger @pazpena, from the ONG Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights) is happy. He writes [es]:

un resultado feliz para toda la sociedad civil que se movilizó y para los representantes que supieron escuchar sus demandas.

a happy outcome for all the civil society [who] mobilized [itself] and for representatives who were able to listen to their demands.

Now, the Executive will need to draft a new bill on Intellectual Property in order to meet the requirements of the Free Trade Agreement signed between Colombia and the US, which will, again, have to be approved by the Constitutional Court before it becomes a law.

The battle is not over yet.

November 08 2012

Same Technology, Different Freedoms: How U.S. Copyright Law Can Restrict Mobile Devices

From a user’s perspective there is not much difference between a smartphone and a tablet. Both devices are portable touch-screen computers, and while the a smartphone might have a dedicated dialing application by default, the ability to make voice calls or connect to a cellular network is not an exclusive feature. However, thanks to U.S. Copyright law the difference between an iPhone and an iPad is not just the screen size, it is the freedom to install software without a gatekeeper.

Image via Flickr user Pete Prodoehl CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)t

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed in 1998, banned the circumvention of technology tailored to protect copyright. Due the the potential for these digital locks to prevent otherwise legal practices, such as transferring the music from  CD to your computer, the DMCA instructed the U.S. Copyright office to consider exemptions to the law every three years.

In 2010, the last year that exemptions were published, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled (PDF) that installing the software of your choice in your mobile device would be exempt from the DMCA. Jailbreaking and rooting, modifying the software of iOS and Android devices, respectively, to modify the operating system, delete unnecessary applications, or simply install applications that might not be available in the designated application stores, became officially legal.

This past October the U.S. Copyright Office issued the latest decision (PDF) in this triennial rulemaking, extending the exemption for jailbreaking and rooting for smartphones but not expanding the same freedom to tablet users. As a result two very similar devices with the same processor, operating system, and dedicated application store offer very different degrees of freedom.

The ruling also rolled back the freedom to circumvent digital locks in order to unlock a handset. In the United States wireless carriers often sell mobile devices that are restricted to operate on a limited number of wireless networks. This prevents users from taking their phone with them to another carrier or even using a different SIM card when traveling abroad. In 2006 the Copyright Office granted an exemption allowing users to unlock their own device, an exemption that was extended in 2010. The most recent rule-making eliminated this exemption and starting in January 2013 users will technically violate copyright if they unlock their smartphone without their carriers’ permission.

Although the recent DCMA rulemaking primarily impacts U.S. users, the U.S. has actively pushed other countries to adopt restrictions against circumventing copyright protections including through trade agreements such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which was rejected by the European Parliament but recently passed in Japan. Similar language has also been included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (PDF).

Combined, these efforts are a stark reminder on how copyright protections can extend beyond media and capture the basic freedoms of control over the devices we purchase and use.

August 16 2012

Picasso piece rediscovered after 50 years in Indiana museum storage

Glasswork has been hidden from view after cataloguing error mistaking artist's name for the medium in which it was made

It had sat unnoticed in storage for almost half a century after being mistaken for a work by the little-known, and non-existent, artist Gemmaux.

But a closer inspection of the glasswork at Indiana's Evansville Museum revealed the telltale signs of a 20th century European master. The bold lines, the nod to an earlier cubist aesthetic, the simultaneous use of full face and profile – the clues were all there.

As was the signature, scrawled quite clearly in the top right corner and missed for 49 years following a cataloguing error.

Now correctly identified, museum chiefs look set to cash in on their find, with Picasso's Seated Woman with Red Hat set to go under the hammer in New York, it was announced this week.

Its hoped-for sale price has not been revealed. But it is expected to raise more excitement in the art world than it would have done under the less recognisable name of Gemmaux.

The fictitious artist was the result of a cataloguing error after the work was gifted to Evansville Museum in 1963 by industrial designer Raymond Loewy.

Described in documents as a "Gemmaux", the word refers not to any name, but to the plural of "gemmail" – a medium used to assemble pieces of glass, which when illuminated from behind show their true colours.

Picasso is thought to have been introduced to the form by his friend Jean Cocteau in the early 1950s. He produced around 50 gemmaux pieces during a two year period while studying in France, it is thought.

Unaware of the its true creator, museum staff placed the "Gemmaux" in storage.

And it stayed hidden to the public until New York auctioneer Guernsey's contacted the Evansville centre earlier this year as part of its research into Picasso's gemmaux works.

It was then that museum staff finally became aware of the gem they had in the midst.

"It sparkles like a jewel," said John Streetman, executive director of the Evansville Museum.

He added: "It was undoubtedly a unique set of circumstances that uncovered this treasure within our museum."

But due to the expense of having to display, preserve and protect the piece from thieves, the museum's trustees have opted to hand over Seated Woman with Red Hat to Guernsey's to sell on the open market.

"Now that we have a full understanding of the requirements and additional expenses to display, secure, preserve and insure the piece, it is clear those additional costs would place a prohibitive financial burden on the museum," said Steve Krohn, president of the museum's board of trustees.


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August 07 2012

Obama pictured with baseball bat: a big hit with voters? | Martin Argles

US politicians are routinely snapped with sporting trophies but it pays to be cautious about the objects you're associated with

What's Obama doing fooling around with a baseball bat signed by Hank Aaron anyway? Hank Aaron, who surpassed Babe Ruth's total of 714 home runs, didn't even play for the White Sox – Obama's favourite team. That bat should be in a museum, not annoying the Turkish opposition.

It's something of a mystery as to why the White House press office thought it a good idea to have Obama photographed by one of their many resident photographers with a sporting trophy. What's the symbolism here? "Listen Recep, Putin may do that weird judo thing, but I can come at you with a 42-inch pole of solid American hickory. So just let the CIA in".

All US presidents are routinely photographed playing golf or jogging, but Obama the ex-smoker-lawyer-from-Chicago is a man for the people's game. Meanwhile, Michelle does her gardening, chats to small children and cheers on the Olympic team from the safety of the stands. It's doubtful if it would work in the UK, even in a post-Olympic glow. Was John Major ever snapped with a cricket bat in the cabinet office, or Gordon Brown with a rugby ball? Does Cameron bring a horse with him to G20 conferences? Politicians in the UK generally stay away from sporting props, and their counterparts down under sometimes share their caution: I once shared a golf course in Sydney with the then-leader of the Australian opposition, John Hewson. A golf buggy was offered and turned down. "I can't be photographed in that", he said. Why? "Makes me look like a wimp". Sport, a vote winner … or loser.

The study of politicians' association with objects is a generally unexplored aspect of political science. Caution is to be recommended. For example if you are Clinton (but not Churchill), stay well away from cigars. But if you are Margaret Thatcher, hold on to your handbag. And if you're Harold Wilson, keep gripping your pipe. I was not surprised to find that Tony Blair had one of those fish in his office that sings "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on demand. Did he ever, even in fun, play that down the line to George Bush?

It's true that one might conclude from the picture that there's nothing Obama wants to do more than to get off the phone and get back to a baseball game with his security men on the White House lawn, but should the Turkish opposition be so frazzled? Baseball isn't even a particularly popular sport over there. One could understand it if the president had been snapped lounging beside the pool in Michael Phelps' briefs, but he hasn't.

Maybe the Turks should get their revenge. How about a return phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdogan pictured in the costume of a Greco-Roman wrestler? Soon enough, heads of states would all be at it. Now that could be interesting.


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August 01 2012

Roy Lichtenstein's Electric Cord resurfaces after 42 years

Painting by pop art pioneer found in a New York city warehouse

A Roy Lichtenstein painting missing since 1970 has surfaced at a New York City warehouse – and a judge has ordered that it stay put until rightful ownership can be determined, according to court documents.

Lichtenstein's Electric Cord was created in 1961. It depicts a coiled cord in black and white on a 28 by 18 inch (71 by 46 cm) canvas. It was bought for $750 in the 1960s by art collector Leo Castelli, but disappeared in 1970 after the Castelli gallery sent it out for cleaning.

In 2007, Barbara Castelli, who inherited the art gallery when her husband Leo died in 1999, listed Electric Cord with a registry of missing and stolen artwork.

Castelli learned last week that an art dealer named James Goodman had contacted the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation seeking assistance authenticating the artwork, which was sitting at a storage facility on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

The painting had been shipped from a gallery in Bogota, Colombia, court records show.

Lawyers for Castelli claim the painting is worth $4m (£2.6m). New York State judge Peter Sherwood issued a temporary restraining order on Tuesday barring the painting from being removed from the warehouse.

Lichtenstein was a pioneer in pop art who died at age 73 in 1997. In May, one of Lichtenstein's works, Sleeping Girl, sold at the auction house Sotheby's for $44.8m.


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July 23 2012

Chief Joseph's shirt auctioned for $900,000

Native American war shirt that appears in Smithsonian painting had only recently resurfaced

A war shirt worn by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe that can be seen in a painting hanging in the Smithsonian Institution sold on Saturday for $877,500 (£562,000) at auction, organisers said.

Mike Overby, an organiser of the annual Coeur d'Alene Art Auction, said the shirt that sold in Reno is considered to be one of the most important Native American artifacts ever to come to auction. It had been expected to raise from $800,000 to $1.2m, he said.

"Anything associated with Chief Joseph is highly desirable, and that's a pretty special shirt," he told Associated Press.

Chief Joseph wore the shirt in 1877 in the earliest known photo of him, and again while posing for a portrait by Cyrenius Hall in 1878. That painting, which was used for a US postage stamp, now hangs in the Smithsonian.

The poncho-style war shirt was made of two soft skins, probably deerskin. It features beadwork with bold geometric designs and bright colors. Warriors kept such prestigious garments clean in a saddlebag on their horse or carefully stored while in camp, to be worn only on special occasions.

The shirt surfaced at an Indian relic show in the 1990s and was sold without any knowledge of its link to the photo and portrait. It changed hands again before the connection was discovered.

Its quality makes it desirable for collectors, but it is the "surprising discovery of the shirt's role in history that reveals its true importance", said Brasser, a former curator of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands, and at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa.

The photo and portrait showing the war shirt were made shortly after Chief Joseph led 750 Nez Perce tribal members on an epic 1,700-mile journey from Oregon to Montana in an unsuccessful bid to reach Canada and avoid being confined to a reservation. They were forced to surrender in 1877 after US troops stopped them about 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

"It was a wild-card piece. We're real happy where it ended up," Overby said. The sale involved private collectors.

Despite its price, the shirt was not the top-selling piece at the auction. The painting Scout's Report, by Howard Terpning, fetched $994,500, and Cowboys Roping the Bear by Frank Tenny Johnson was bought for $965,250.

Some 400 bidders took part in what was billed as the world's largest Western art sale. About 300 works were sold for a total of $17.2m, up from $16.9m last year.


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July 21 2012

LA artists fight for soul of one of the city's cultural landmarks

Trustees of Museum of Contemporary Arts split by row over dumbing down of shows

A furious row has broken out at Los Angeles's leading art institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is pitting some of America's most celebrated aesthetes against a billionaire property developer.

Moca, one of the symbols of LA's recent emergence as an art hub to match New York, is dedicated to the presentation and study of recent art and has long been a home to the erudite and esoteric. But the museum has been hit by the defection of high-profile artist board members furious at a perceived dumbing down.

The conceptual artist John Baldessari was first to resign, followed by agit-prop graphic artist Barbara Kruger and "queer-space" photographer Catherine Opie. Then Ed Ruscha, possibly the city's best known artist internationally, followed suit. Their resignations, they said, could be read as a protest at the commercial, pop-culture direction of the museum at the expense of education and scholarship.

"The artists in LA are very upset," said Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, author of Rebels in Paradise: The Los Angeles Art Scene and the 1960s. "There's a schism between the trustees. It's a complicated situation."

Angry fingers are being pointed at Eli Broad, a billionaire property developer and art collector who bailed out the financially struggling institution three years ago with a $30m donation, and his choice of director, the pop-art minded, former New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

With Broad's backing, Deitch, they claim, effectively engineered the removal of the museum's long-serving chief curator, Paul Schimmel, setting up a confrontation between artists and a deep-pocketed collector allied with museum managers charged with raising revenue and exhibition attendances.

Art in the Streets, a Deitch-orchestrated survey of the graffiti and street art movement, drew a record number of visitors. That was followed by a retrospective of Dennis Hopper's artwork. Earlier this year, the actor James Franco curated a show that drew inspiration from Rebel Without a Cause.

"Jeffrey represents a populist streak that many in the art world consider vulgar. He goes for spectacle more than scholarship," says New York art critic Carlo McCormick. "They feel he's dumbing down the cultural values of the art world."

And behind that, many suspect, is a billionaire whose motives are not entirely clear. While Broad saved Moca and wants to keep it viable, he is also constructing a rival museum across downtown LA to house his own collection.

In addition, the original trustees of the museum have been bolstered by big-money figures such as hedge fund whale Steven S Cohen and Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian who collects Damien Hirst. "The influence of collectors is probably at an all-time high," says McCormick. "Art is highly professionalised and market-determined at every level."

LA artists expressed dismay that educational aspects of the institution have been cut from the budget and said they worried that Moca was becoming "a cliche of Los Angeles or a part of the entertainment industry. We want to know the direction of the museum and to know that curators are respected and their shows are being funded."

LA art critic Mat Gleason said: "Deitch is actually inoculating the museum from conflicts of interest with high-wealth collectors." By putting on more pop-culture orientated shows, "he can go to low-level donors and say, 'We throw really cool parties, why don't you donate to us?' " In response, Deitch wrote to museum members saying the institution's programme was "a response to and an articulation of the current art and cultural landscape today". Moca, he said, would continue to engage audiences in a "dynamic and scholarly way".

Friends of Deitch say he's tired of being criticised for placing pop art or shows about disco culture ahead of cutting-edge art. But they also say he's perfect for Los Angeles because it is a city "wrapped up in celebrities and celebutantes".

It's the artists, then, who may have to accept that they live in an entertainment town. "But, of course, they're freaked out that people like James Franco are getting exhibitions because it's not serious and it doesn't matter," says a Moca supporter.

Artists, however, not collectors or institutional managers, may still have the final say. "If showing at Moca means selling out, then no one is going to want to show there," says one.

• This article was amended on 23 July 2012. The original wrongly gave the location of Eli Broad's rival museum as Wilshire Boulevard.


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June 28 2012

Featured photojournalist: Jim Lo Scalzo

The EPA photographer captured a series of images of the only all-female chain gang in America





June 23 2012

George Washington's copy of US constitution sells for $9.8m

Price fetched at Christie's New York auction is record for any American book or historic document

George Washington's personal copy of the US constitution and bill of rights sold for $9.8m (£6.3m) at auction on Friday, setting a record for any American book or historic document.

Bidders at Christie's New York salesroom and others on the telephone competed for the first US president's signed, gold-embossed volume dating to 1789, which had a pre-sale estimate of up to $3m.

The non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, which maintains the historic Mount Vernon estate in Virginia that was Washington's home and is now open to the public, was the successful bidder.

"The unique book had been in the Mount Vernon library until 1876, and will soon be returned to that library," said Chris Coover, senior specialist of books and manuscripts at Christie's.

The bound volume was Washington's personal copy of the Acts of Congress and is noteworthy for his bold signature marking it as his own.

The Acts of Congress include the Constitution, whose preamble promises to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," and the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the constitution, which establish such fundamental liberties as the right to free speech, press, assembly and religion.

Christie's described the book as being in near-pristine condition after 223 years. It was specially printed for Washington in 1789, his first year in office as president.

The margins include Washington's handwritten brackets and notations highlighting key passages concerning the president's responsibilities.

The Acts of Congress volume was sold from Washington's library at Mt Vernon in 1876 and eventually bought at auction by collector Richard Dietrich in the 1960s. It was being sold by the family's estate.

Similar volumes created for Thomas Jefferson, the first secretary of state and third US president, and attorney general John Jay, are in Indiana's Lilly Library and a private collection, respectively.

Rare books and manuscripts have achieved impressive prices in recent years.

An autographed manuscript of Lincoln's 1864 election victory speech sold for $3.4m in February 2009, which set a record for an American manuscript at the time. A 1787 letter written from Washington to his nephew on the subject of the ratification of the Constitution fetched $3.2m in December 2009.


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June 21 2012

LeRoy Neiman dies aged 91

Artist depicted five Olympics in rushing colour, drew for Playboy and painted career of Muhammad Ali

LeRoy Neiman, the painter and sketch artist, has died aged 91. He was best known for evoking the kinetic energy of the world's biggest sporting and leisure events with bright quick strokes.

Neiman was a contributing artist at Playboy magazine for many years and official painter of five Olympics. His publicist confirmed his death on Wednesday.

Neiman enthralled audiences with instant renditions of what he observed. In 1972 he sketched the world chess tournament between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a live television audience.

He produced live drawings of the Olympics for TV and was the official computer artist of the Super Bowl for CBS.

"It's been fun. I've had a lucky life," Neiman said in a June 2008 interview. "I've zeroed in on what you would call action and excellence ... Everybody who does anything to try to succeed has to give the best of themselves and art has made me pull the best out of myself."

Neiman's paintings, many executed in household enamel paints that allowed the artist his fast-moving strokes, are an explosion in reds, blues, pinks, greens and yellows of pure kinetic energy.

He has been described as an American impressionist but preferred to think of himself simply as an American artist. "I don't know if I'm an impressionist or an expressionist. You can call me an American first ... (but) I've been labelled doing neimanism, so that's what it is, I guess."

He worked in many media, producing thousands of etchings, lithographs and silkscreen prints known as serigraphy.

But his critics said Neiman's forays into the commercial world minimized him as a serious artist. At Playboy, for example, he created Femlin, the well-endowed nude that has graced the magazine's Party Jokes page since 1957.

Neiman shrugged off such criticism. "I can easily ignore my detractors and feel the people who respond favourably," he said.

"For an artist, watching a [Joe] Namath throw a football or a Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or leading political figure."

With his sketchbook and pencil, trademark handlebar moustache and slicked back hair, Neiman was instantly recognisable. At a New York Jets game at Shea Stadium in 1975 fans yelled "Put LeRoy in" when the play wasn't going their way.

Neiman's decades-long association with Playboy began in 1953 following a chance meeting with Hugh Hefner. It was the start of what he called "the good life" and inspiration for much of his future work. He regularly contributed to the magazine's Man at His Leisure feature, which took him to such places as the Grand National steeplechase and Ascot in England, the Cannes film festival in France and the Monaco grand prix.

Neiman was a self-described workaholic who seldom took vacations and had no hobbies. He worked daily in his New York City home studio at the Hotel des Artistes near Central Park that he shared with his wife of more than 50 years, Janet.

Neiman was also a portraitist who captured some of the world's most iconic figures, Frank Sinatra and Babe Ruth among them, in a style that conveyed their public image. "I am less concerned with how people look when they wake," he said. "A person's public presence reflects his own efforts at image development."

He painted Muhammad Ali many times over 15 years of the prizefighter's professional life, to the extent there is a LeRoy Neiman Gallery at the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky.


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June 19 2012

Picasso painting vandalised in Houston – video

A patron at Houston's Menil Collection captures mobile phone footage of a man vandalising Picasso's Woman in a Red Armchair



June 08 2012

Conjoined twins through Annabel Clark's lens - in pictures

For four years, Annabel Clark has been photographing sisters Lupita and Carmen Andrade. Her aim? To change the way people look at conjoined twins. Simon Hattenstone reports



Yoko Ono profile: from John Lennon to a Wish Tree

An artist for the age of Occupy is given a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London

The most famous thing anyone ever said about Yoko Ono was, inevitably, said by John Lennon, and for years it held true. He called her "the world's most famous unknown artist, everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does".

As the artist, musician, film-maker and peace activist nears 80, that could be changing. After decades demonised as the witch who destroyed the Beatles she is emerging from the shadow of that complicated personal history.

Since a groundbreaking exhibition in New York in 2001 re-established her reputation, she has come back into focus as a significant artist, winning the accolade of the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 2009 Venice Biennale. New generations of artists have discovered her as an inspirational figure.

Basement Jaxx, Flaming Lips and Lady Gaga have collaborated with her in recent years. Younger visual artists as different as Jeff Koons, Pipilotti Rist and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster cite her as an influence; the photographer and film-maker Sam Taylor-Wood even jokingly calls herself an "obsessed fan".

This summer the artist – a tiny figure, usually to be seen wearing trademark sunglasses and hat – will be the focus of a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

According to Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the gallery, it is her prescience as an artist that makes her an intriguing figure for today. "As her relationship with the Beatles fades into the past her own reputation is crystallising. What is so extraordinary is that her work chimes with the times we live in now. Her activism is immensely relevant for today, in the age of Occupy."

Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Guggenheim, organised the 2001 exhibition at New York's Japan Society. She says Ono's importance is only just being fully appreciated "after 40 years of her being dismissed – either as a Japanese artist, or a woman artist". She adds: "What makes her so slippery is that she is so wide-ranging. She is a musician and a poet, a peace activist and a performance artist, a maker of objects and a conceptual artist – and married to John Lennon."

The sheer breadth of her output, says Munroe, has taxed curatorial and critical skills. But, she says, Ono's originality cannot be underestimated, even though it has often been unrecognised.

"She was the first artist, in 1964, to put language on the wall of the gallery and invite the viewer to complete the work. She was the first artist to cede authorial authority to the viewer in this way, making her work interactive and experimental. That was the radical move of art in the 1960s."

Ono's energy remains undimmed and she continues to make new work and harness new technology. Her Twitter followers number 2.3 million. Recent works include her Imagine Peace tower (2007), a column of laser-light on an island near Reykjavik, and My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004), an image of breasts and vagina that was exhibited on posters around the city of Liverpool, causing controversy in some quarters.

She was born in 1933 into a wealthy Japanese family firmly ensconced in the ruling classes; her father was a banker. She began piano tuition at two and was educated at a specialist music school as her family shuttled between New York and Tokyo. War brought unfamiliar deprivations to the aristocratic family. In 1945 she took charge of her siblings, at the age of 12, when they were evacuated to the countryside after the capital's fire bombing. They struggled to eat. Her father was imprisoned in a Saigon concentration camp.

After the war Ono completed her education, becoming the first woman accepted to read philosophy at Gakushuin University. The family moved to New York, where she studied at Sarah Lawrence College, and, in 1956, she married the composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. By this time Ono was discovering a downtown scene of musicians, composers and artists, with John Cage and La Monte Young key figures.

After the collapse of her relationship with Ichiyanagi she married the American producer and art promoter Anthony Cox, and they had a daughter, Kyoko.

By the early 1960s Ono was working on the periphery of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus group, organising performances and happenings in her Chambers Street loft in Tribeca.

A key work was her book Grapefruit, first published in 1964, which has artworks framed as sets of instructions, or "event scores"; as such it is an important early example of conceptual art. (One example, entitled Painting to Exist Only When It's Copied Or Photographed, runs: "Let people copy or photograph your paintings. Destroy the originals.")

Another significant work of this period was Cut Piece, a performance work in which Ono invited the audience to take scissors and snip away her clothes as she sat, silent and still. The critic Michael Bracewell notes: "It is amazing how well that piece has lasted. When you see film of the piece done originally, she seems so vulnerable as a young woman, especially a young Asian woman. There are extraordinary undertones – submissiveness, the idea of the geisha. Enacted, it becomes incredibly tense."

Bracewell saw the piece when it was re-done in Paris in 2003. "The piece had automatically updated itself. It had become a piece about celebrity. The place was crammed to the gills, a couple of rows full of gilded young people, and absolutely no security. There she was, this elegant woman in her 70s and anyone could approach her with a bloody great pair of scissors."

For Munroe, Cut Piece was "absolutely revolutionary. "The idea that the artist's body in time and space is itself a work of art was totally radical."

In 1966 Ono held a show at the Indica Gallery, London. John Dunbar was the gallery's director. "I introduced John and Yoko," he recalls. "I was a friend of John and Paul, and suggested they come in; I thought John would enjoy it. Yoko had never heard of John. I had to explain that he was a rich person who might buy something … It wasn't immediately clear that anything was going to happen. She is a strong woman. John had never met anyone like her."

After two years they got together. But the corollary was that Cox, after a custody battle for Kyoko that Ono won, effectively kidnapped the child, and Ono did not see her at all between the ages of eight and 31.

Ono's union with Lennon of course represents the pivotal moment in her life. According to Bracewell an immediate effect was her artistic influence on Lennon – which also served to damage her, since she was "regarded as the demon face of the avant-garde and, particularly in Britain, what she did was largely seen as unintelligible".

Sean, Lennon and Ono's son, was born in 1975, five years before his father was gunned down on the street outside the Dakota Building in New York . Ono still lives there with her superb collection of art that includes Magrittes and Warhols. And mother and son have  collaborated on music projects in recent years.

An often expressed doubt surrounding Ono is that the peace-and-love mantra she expresses through her art and through her activism can look like a relic of a lost time, a statement stuck in the era of the 1960s.

For example, her Wish Tree, which she has instigated in various locations and will appear outside the Serpentine this summer, is a tree on which members of the public are invited to attach labels on which they have scribbled their wishes.

Bracewell, who believes Ono has suffered from "a sexist and racist response to her from people who regarded her as a giggling, inscrutable Japanese woman who had stolen one of our national treasures", argues that to regard such works as childish is unfair.

"Why would we have a problem with Yoko doing peace and love when we are quite happy for the Beatles to sing All You Need Is Love?" he says.

Perhaps Ono has, in the end, more right than most to tackle hatred and violence in her own way. She experienced war in Japan firsthand; her husband was shot down; her life was clearly soured by hatred directed at her from some Beatles fans.

It is her resilience in the face of disaster that, for the musician Antony Hegarty – who has collaborated with her on performances – makes her a personal as well as an artistic model. "She has  shown me, by her power of example, how to stand by one's values, even in the face of fear," he says. "She  has endured brutal storms and never surrendered."

Munroe agrees. The peace-and-love message, she says, is authentic. "She really believes in love as the transformative energy in the world. That's her faith."

Potted profile

Born 13 February 1933

Age 79

Career Ono has worked in the avant garde of the art world since the 1950s, her practice taking in music, film, poetry and performance – including her two famous week-long "bed-ins" with her husband John Lennon, a twist on the sit-in.

High point Meeting Lennon at a preview of her exhibition at Indica gallery, London, in November 1966; also her 2001 retrospective Yes Yoko Ono, which cemented her work's reputation.

Low point Ono was vilified for decades for breaking up the Beatles and even after Lennon's death in 1980 attracted little public sympathy. Also suffered the abduction of her daughter Kyoko by her second husband, Anthony Cox.

What she says "No one person could have broken up a band, especially one the size of the Beatles."

What they say "I learned everything from her … That's what people don't understand. She's the teacher and I'm the pupil." John Lennon, 1980


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May 10 2012

Warhol Double Elvis sells for $37m at Sotheby's auction

Roy Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl and Ai Weiwei's Sunflowers attract record prices at Sotheby's contemporary art sale in New York

Andy Warhol's Double Elvis sold for $37m (£23m) and works by Roy Lichtenstein and the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei broke their own records at Sotheby's contemporary art sale on Wednesday.

Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl, depicting a woman with closed eyes and flowing blond hair, fetched $44.9m; Weiwei's one-tonne, handmade porcelain Sunflower Seeds brought $782,500.

Warhol's Double Elvis (Ferus Type), a silver silkscreen image of Elvis Presley depicted as a cowboy, fetched $37,042,500. It had been expected to sell for $30m-$50m. The auction house said it was the first Double Elvis to appear on the market since 1995. Warhol produced a series of 22 images of Elvis. Nine are in museum collections.

Elvis is shown armed and shooting from the hip, with a shadowy and faintly visible double in the background. It was offered for sale by a private American collector, who acquired it in 1977.

The record for a Warhol is $71.7m for his Green Car Crash Green Burning Car I, sold at Christie's in 2007.

Another major work on the auction block Francis Bacon's Figure Writing Reflected in Mirror sold for $44,882,500. The buyers' names for each of the four pieces were not released.

The sale came on the heels of art auction history. Last week the auction house sold a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream for $119.9m, making it the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

"The reason for these record-breaking sales is, quite simply, the quality of material on show," said Michael Frahm, a contemporary art adviser at the London-based Frahm Ltd. "The key is quality."

Lichtenstein's Sleeping Girl was one of a series of sexy comic book-inspired images created by the artist in the 1960s, The work was exhibited only once at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1989-90. It was sold by the estate of Los Angeles collectors and philanthropists Beatrice and Phillip Gersh, who were the founding members of MOCA.

Lichtenstein's I Can See the Whole Room! ... And There's Nobody In It! held the previous auction record for the artist. It sold for $43.2m at Christie's in November 2011.

Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds was one of an edition of 10 and was accompanied by a certificate signed by the artist. The ceramic seeds, which can be arranged in myriad shapes, were the subject of a Tate Modern exhibit in 2010. The previous Weiwei auction record was $657,000 for his Chandelier, set at Sotheby's in 2007.

Bacon's Figure Writing, which depicts the artist and his partner, George Dyer, writing at a table, was included in a 1977 Paris exhibition alongside Triptych, a 1976 work by the artist that sold for $86.2m at Sotheby's in 2008. It held the record for any contemporary artwork at auction until Tuesday night when Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow claimed that title when it sold at Christie's for $86.8m.

The Elvis silkscreen was exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1963, the year it was created. The auction catalogue described the work, based on a movie publicity photo, as "the deification of a contemporary warrior-saint, the towering, pre-eminent idol bearing a deadly weapon as if protecting the mythical world of celebrity itself".


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