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Annie Leibovitz’s debt puts life’s work at risk

Annie Leibovitz speaks about her portrait of Queen Elizabeth II  during a press preview of an exhibit at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington in October 2007.  (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Annie Leibovitz speaks about her portrait of Queen Elizabeth II during a press preview of an exhibit at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington in October 2007. (File Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Photographer could lose rights to photos

NEW YORK – Annie Leibovitz’s artsy, provocative portraits of celebrities regularly grace the covers of Vanity Fair and Vogue, images that have made her as famous as her subjects and earned her millions.

Now Leibovitz risks losing the copyright to the images – and her entire life’s work – if she doesn’t pay back a $24 million loan by Tuesday. Art Capital Group, a New York company that issues short-term loans against art and real estate, sued her in late July for breach of contract.

“We have clear contractual rights and will protect them in any scenario,” ACG spokesman Montieth Illingworth said on Friday. “Our preference is for this to be resolved.”

Some experts say filing for bankruptcy reorganization could be the best option for Leibovitz, 59, who has put up as collateral her three historic Greenwich Village townhouses, an upstate property and work. She bought two of the townhouses in 2002, embarking on extensive renovations to combine them into one property. That spurred protests from historic preservationists and a $15 million lawsuit by a neighbor.

“Based on the magnitude of her obligations and the facts as they are publicly known, that would be the best option,” said art lawyer Peter Stern.

Leibovitz’s images of musicians, presidents and Hollywood glitterati are cultural touchstones. One of her earliest photos is of John Lennon curled up naked in a fetal position with Yoko Ono, taken just hours before he was assassinated in 1980.

So to many, her decision to gamble the rights to her work seems inexplicable. “Jaw-dropping,” Stern said.

Her editorial agent, Contact Press Images, has declined to comment on the case, saying it is a private matter.

Her spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik, has accused ACG of harassment.

A reorganization filing would suspend all litigation against Leibovitz and place her finances under the protection of a federal judge, said bankruptcy lawyer Paul Silverman, who works with Stern. Neither attorney is involved in the case.

Last year, Leibovitz put up her homes and the copyright to every picture she has ever taken – or will take – as collateral to secure the loan to pay off her mounting debt: unpaid bills, mortgage payments and tax liens, ACG said.

While no one has suggested publicly how Leibovitz got into such desperate financial straits, the mortgage debt on all her properties – including the townhouses in Greenwich Village and a sprawling estate in Rhinebeck, N.Y. – totaled about $15 million. This includes the $1.2 million loan she took out on two of the townhouses, and another $2.2 million three years later, according to New York magazine.

In addition to her mortgages, court records show that she piled up years of federal, state and city liens and judgments from vendors for unpaid bills – all presumably now satisfied with the $24 million she borrowed.

Art Capital Group, which consolidated all her loans in September 2008, charged in its lawsuit that Leibovitz breached the contract by refusing to allow real estate experts into her homes to appraise their value and by blocking ACG from selling her photographs.

ACG has estimated the value of the Leibovitz portfolio at $40 million; real estate brokers say her New York properties are worth about $40 million.

ACG is in effect a high-end pawn shop and, just like pawn shops, is just as happy to see a default, according to art and money experts.

Over the years, Leibovitz’s lens has captured Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and Bruce Springsteen. She gave the world its first glimpse of baby Suri, newborn daughter of Hollywood couple Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Her Vanity Fair salary has been reported to be about $2 million, according to New York magazine. She has done work for Louis Vuitton and American Express; she charges $100,000 for private portraits.


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