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Zapruder's Copyright
One of the most arbitrary elements in the art world is the price of art. A painter states a price, a buyer makes an offer, the painter lowers his price, hoping for a counteroffer, the buyer either makes one or walks away. It's old-world, street-market haggling at its most basic level, and it hasn't changed all that much since the days of old world street market haggling. Today, of course, it's still done sometimes at street-market art shows, but more often at giant indoor art marts, snobbish art galleries, and behind closed doors deep in the bowels of the U.S. Government bureaucracy. The family wants $30 million, comparing their family heirloom to Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers, which sold for $40 million in 1987. The government is offering a measly one million. The controversy boils down to whether the item is "art" or merely a national treasure. The "artist" is Abraham Zapruder. The work of "art"/national treasure, is the 30-second, 8 mm strip of celluloid which captured the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

There is no question of ownership. The government has the film and intends to keep it. It's locked away in a freezer vault, at 25 degrees Fahrenheit, in a National Archives warehouse in College Park, Maryland. The family continues to own the copyright. The question is, how much should the family be compensated for the government's seizure of this piece of documentary evidence. The government cites the 1996 Sotheby sale of Kennedy memorabilia (from the Jacqueline Kennedy estate) where prices ranged in the thousands of dollars, rather than millions. The top price at that sale was $1.4 million for an antique desk used by President Kennedy in signing the 1961 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The government points out that the entire collection "only" brought $34 million. And the government notes that President Kennedy never even so much as "touched" the Zapruder film, so therefore their offer is quite generous.

Art appraiser, Beth Gates Warren, writing for the Zapruder family, compares the film to Andy Warhol's Orange Marilyn which recently sold for $17.3 million, calling it a unique cultural icon, undeniably a part of the emotional Kennedy mystique and the controversy surrounding the President's death. She cites it as an example of "vernacular photography" which has recently come to the art world, depicting various aspects of modern, daily life where the creator had no intent toward artistic ends. Such works have regularly become a part of various museum exhibitions, such as a recent show at the Museum of Modern Art made up of photos of bank robberies taken by automatic bank cameras. She claims that the film is far more viable as a work of art than pictures taken by surveillance cameras. She further points out that, "The film captures a profound moment in 20th century history in a deeply moving and visually compelling way." The argument therefore comes in a full circle. Is the film art, or merely an historic document? You've no doubt seen it. What do you think? One million or thirty million?

Contributed by Lane, Jim
26 May 1999

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