Annie get your lawyer: Leibovitz sued over $24m loan

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The Independent Culture

Annie Leibovitz, the photographer who has taken portraits of the world's most famous people – from the Queen and Michelle Obama to David Beckham – is being sued for allegedly reneging on the terms of a $24m personal loan.

The lawsuit was filed by Art Capital, a company that might best be described as "a pawnbroker to the stars" because it offers wealthy people loans with their art collections surrendered as collateral. Art Capital claims Leibowitz, 59, has reneged on an agreement to sell her life's work to repay the debt. It has asked a court to order her to open her home and studio to its property agents.

Leibovitz first approached Art Capital last summer after being buffeted by money troubles, including the costs of construction and litigation relating to three homes in New York's Greenwich Village, bonds placed on her properties by state and federal tax authorities, and a legal battle with a lighting company and a stylist.

In its filing to the New York State Supreme Court, Art Capital said the photographer, whose work is most often seen in Vogue and Vanity Fair, was in "dire financial condition" when she asked it for help. In accepting the $24m in two payments, this summer and last December, she allegedly surrendered to the company exclusive rights to sell all of her work if necessary, as well as the homes she once shared with her partner Susan Sontag, who died in 2004, and their children in Greenwich Village and at Rhinebeck in upstate New York.

Crunch time is approaching because the loans are due to be repaid next month. Art Capital claims Leibovitz will be unable to satisfy her obligations on the maturity date, which was "discussed and acknowledged by the parties at the outset of the restructuring". It also alleges in its filing that she has engaged in "boldly deceptive conduct" and failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars she already owes the group, as well as refusing to let sales agents into her homes or studio to value and prepare them for sale.

"This is both disappointing and unfortunate," said Monteith Illingworth, a spokesman for the company. "Art Capital is merely defending its contractual rights. We look forward to a timely resolution of this matter."

However, Leibovitz's publicist Matthew Hiltzik said: "This is part of Art Capital's continued harassment and attention-getting efforts. There has been tension and dispute since the beginning. Annie is in the same shoes as many other people involved with Art Capital. For now, her attention remains on her photography and on continuing to organise her finances."

The lawsuit says that under the deal she signed, Leibovitz agreed to surrender as collateral the negatives and intellectual property rights to every photograph she had ever taken, and her properties. She gave Art Capital the right to sell the photos and properties for a commission, and the proceeds would then pay back the loan. "It is like the Beatles signing away their catalogue," said Helene Winer, co-owner of the Metro Pictures gallery in New York. "It's a very odd thing to do, to give away control over your work."

Before joining Vogue and Vanity Fair, Leibovitz was the chief photographer for Rolling Stone magazine. Among her more famous works is a portrait of John Lennon just before he died, naked and curled around his wife Yoko Ono. Her other iconic pictures include a naked, pregnant Demi Moore, and the actress Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk.

A source familiar with Leibovitz's situation conceded yesterday: "If she had it to do all over again, she wouldn't have done this."

Art Capital, whose head office is the former Sotheby's building in Madison Avenue, was approached for a loan by Michael Jackson but turned him down.

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