Early lessons in property rights are straightforward. If a bully grabs your Tootsie Roll on the playground, you’ve been robbed. If he copies your book report, you’ve been plagiarized. Later in life it gets more complicated. Take the case of east-coast artist Peter Anton, who says the Field Museum stole his candy.

Anton’s been making sculptures that look like giant boxes of chocolates since 1995, when he plucked a truffle from his bedside stash and inspiration struck. He says his concept was so novel that galleries were leery at first, but when Bruce R. Lewin put one of his pieces in the window of his SoHo storefront, it was an immediate hit. The big open boxes of sweets–made of wood, plaster, clay, glue, and resin–became Anton’s specialty. His “photorealistic” bonbons were pictured in gallery ads and got television and magazine coverage. After a photo of a humongous box of chocolates appeared in the New York Times in June as part of a story about the Field Museum’s “Chocolate” exhibit (which had just opened at New York’s American Museum of Natural History), Anton received congratulatory calls from friends, relatives, and collectors of his work. But he was stymied: as far as he knew, he wasn’t in the exhibit, and no one from the museum had ever contacted him.

“When I saw the photo I almost fell over,” Anton says. The large, realistic, wall-mounted box of chocolates the Field was using in its exhibit looked to him like a close copy of his six-by-four-foot sculpture Super Deluxe Assortment, but with three of the candies replaced by video screens. Convinced he’d been ripped off, Anton began looking for a lawyer and on the Internet found a Saint Louis law firm that wrote the Field on his behalf. The August 25 letter told museum officials they had infringed on his copyright and said there was reason to believe museum staff was familiar with his work: over the years, photographs of Anton’s sculpture had been sent both to the museum and to its exhibitions and education programs director, Sophia Siskel, in a previous job she held at the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It would be nearly impossible for at least one of the many people involved with the Chocolate tour at The Field Museum to not realize Mr. Anton’s work was substantially similar to the sculpture which now appears in the tour,” the letter said. Although Anton says he told his lawyers he wanted only recognition, the letter listed demands including cancellation of the tour (which is booked into 2006). It closed with a threat: failure to comply “may leave us with no alternative but to seek appropriate…relief…including the recovery of monetary…damages.”

“The design for our chocolate exhibition and his artwork are not similar,” says Sophia Siskel. “We never had contact with Mr. Anton nor [had we] ever seen his artwork before.” Siskel has no recollection of viewing Anton’s work while she was at the MCA, she says–“we got probably 20 packets from aspiring artists every day.” And though she worked on the “Chocolate” exhibit from the start, she says the sculpture, built in Chicago by museum personnel, “is a component I didn’t have a hand in.” On September 16, Field Museum general counsel Felisia Wesson wrote Anton’s lawyer that his claim “is completely without merit….A simple comparison…demonstrates distinct differences between both the form and the function of the two works.” Besides the three video monitors, the shapes and colors of the individual candies are different, and the Field’s “video wall also contains cushioned seats in the shape of chocolates,” she noted.

Upon receiving this letter, Anton says, he considered a lawsuit but decided to forgo that route when he learned it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Still, he says, the institutional “arrogance” rankled, and in spite of warnings that he’d “lose my name in the art world” by going up against a museum, he issued two press releases last month telling his story. The first was headed “Museum Gets Caught With Its Hand in the Candy Box: The Field Museum Infringes Famous Artist’s Copyright”; the second, “Art Heist.” In it Anton wrote, “It’s so unfair that a museum, which is supposed to be in support of art, artists, and culture, would copy my sculptures and then…completely disregard me….Artists have no recourse for copyright infringement because the legal expenses are prohibitive, especially when you are up against a giant multimillion-dollar business like the Field Museum.”

“If Mr. Anton has a claim he thinks is viable, he should bring a lawsuit,” says Wesson. “He’s also skating pretty close to the line on defamation. His press release seems to intimate that our director of exhibitions was aware of his art and was involved in copying it, and that’s simply not the case. Unless he has something other than specious facts to back that up, he needs to be a little careful about charges he’s throwing around.”

Who’s right? To have a copyright you need “an original work fixed in a tangible medium,” says attorney William Rattner, executive director of Lawyers for the Creative Arts, who’ll lead a forum on intellectual property rights at the Cultural Center this week. The work needn’t be unique, but it does need to have sprung from its creator’s mind, as opposed to being a copy. And an idea alone cannot be copyrighted; only the fixed form of an idea–written, painted, recorded, built–can be protected. To prove copyright infringement, you have to show that the alleged copy is similar to your original work and that the person who made it had access to your work. Also–and here’s where those video monitors might come in–you must show that the alleged copy is not changed enough to constitute a new work. This last is “a question of fact determined by the court on a case-by-case basis,” Rattner says.

“Mine, Yours, Ours: Intellectual Property, Copyright, Public Domain,” sponsored by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs series “Artists at Work,” starts at 6 PM Thursday, November 13, at the Cultural Center. Also on the panel: attorney Carol Anne Been of Sonnenshein Nath & Rosenthal and photographer Paul Natkin, who had a copyright run-in of his own with Oprah Winfrey. Call 312-744-6630.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/George Papadakis.