Bad Artists Copy. Good Artists Steal: Trade Secrets in the Art World

“Bad Artists Copy. Good Artists Steal” – Pablo Picasso

In the small world of exclusive and upscale art sales, competing galleries inevitably form and maintain relationships with one another.  This is the case for Lévy Gorvey gallery partner Dominque Lévy, and Lehmann Maupin Group co-founder Rachel Lehmann, who have known each other for over 20 years.  Now, Lehmann Maupin is involved in a trade secrets fight with their former sales director, Bona Yoo, who is currently employed by Lévy Gorvey.  In this tightknit artist’s community, the news of a trade secrets lawsuit against a former employee is admittedly more shocking than the typical Silicon Valley trade secret theft story, where employees leave for competitor companies as frequently as they come.  But it should not be surprising that trade secrets in the art industry are just as valuable to their owners as they are to tech industry leaders—because in both worlds, client relationships are key.

That’s why Lehmann Maupin Group is not taking lightly their suspicion that their former sales director destroyed company trade secrets and stole client information upon her departure to a competing gallery.  According to the complaint, when Bona Yoo left Lehmann Maupin to join Lévy Gorvey last fall, she copied files containing valuable trade secrets and “maliciously corrupted” or deleted other files.  Lehmann Maupin alleges that Ms. Yoo did so to gain a competitive advantage in the industry, while simultaneously impeding Lehmann Maupin’s business. The complaint “claims damages from the violation of the Defend Trade Secrets Act, the Stored Communication Act, confidentiality agreements, and New York law.

Dominque Lévy of the Lévy Gorvey gallery has come to Ms. Yoo’s defense, publicly stating that she is “tremendously saddened” by the allegations against Ms. Yoo, and adding that the art world “is not the place for this aggressive behavior.”   Lévy Gorvey gallery is not named as a defendant in this litigation.   Ms. Yoo’s response is due January 29.

This case brings to light some interesting issues that permeate across much larger, more publicized industries.  The first is that no industry is immune from trade secrets litigation.  When key employees bring invaluable and irreplaceable knowledge to the table, they often become embroiled in trade secrets litigation with their former employers.  Regardless of whether Ms. Yoo is liable for the allegations leveled against her in this case, it remains the case that departing employees are often unaware of their obligations with respect to protecting their former employees’ trade secrets.  It is important to counsel individuals on the laws surrounding trade secrets theft prior to their exit from one company to a competitor company—whether they work for an art gallery or a tech-industry giant.