Is someone milking the painted cows?

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Cow wars have broken out over what promises to be the largest public art project the world has seen. At stake is a share in a rapidly growing global business empire founded on a series of charitable art "events" involving high-profile artists and celebrities.

Cow wars have broken out over what promises to be the largest public art project the world has seen. At stake is a share in a rapidly growing global business empire founded on a series of charitable art "events" involving high-profile artists and celebrities.

London has been chosen as the next venue for a "cow parade", in which hundreds of "blank" life-sized glass-fibre cows are painted, set up at prominent sites around the city, then, after several months on display, auctioned off. The event comes after similar city-wide cow parades staged in and around Chicago and New York in recent years, and is run by a US-based company - the CowParade Holdings Corporation - via an off-shoot, CowParade (London) Ltd.

The London cow parade is due to begin in June, and, according to the American firm, figures such as Damien Hirst, Jonathan Ross, Ringo Starr and Des Lynham will be contributing designs. Up to 500 cows are expected to be on show, and the main beneficiary will be the children's charity ChildLine, chaired by Esther Rantzen.

But a Swiss firm, CowPARADE Holdings AG, is disputing the US company's right to use the name and format, and has said it will sue, claiming that the initial idea was its own, and that only it has the right to license them and therefore reap the rewards of what are set to become extremely lucrative events. As well as raising funds for charity, the American firm licenses a range of products arising from the events, including toys, books and clothing, some of which are enjoying almost cult status as collectables.

The first cow-art event was held in Zurich in 1998 as part of a drive to increase tourist revenue. It proved to be a great success and its potential for generating both publicity and cash led to its appearance at Chicago the following year. There, it was was credited with generating more than £6m in revenue for the city's traders and was seen by millions of people. The subsequent auction raised more than £2m for charity.

At cow parades, each cow is sponsored, with businesses paying to have their name associated with particular artists or celebrities. Lesser-known artists are also invited to submit designs for cows to the events' organisers.

But it is a success founded not so much on creative patronage as on cattle rustling, claim angry rivals. "We can and will and are filing court proceedings on this," said Kurt Blickensdorfer, the Swiss lawyer who is president of CowPARADE Holdings AG.

"The idea came from Switzerland," he added. "Whatever is going on overseas originated from Switzerland, and what has happened over there is not fair."

The Swiss claim that only they have the right to license cow events worldwide. Now, the Americans have hit back. "We are taking legal action against the Swiss," said CowParade Holdings Corp's president, Jerome Elbaum - also a lawyer. "They're infringing our intellectual property."

In New York last year, the cow parade managed by CowParade Holdings Corp attracted some 1,500 submissions from artists vying to have their designs realised on one of 500 cows, and the event became one of the most successful of its kind ever seen in the city.

Ringo Starr, the former Beatle, was so taken with the New York cows that he splashed out on four of them at the end-of-show auction and had them herded back to England.

But the company's interest in the phenomenon is not wholly philanthropic. "Sure, we're in it to make money, but there's so much that is positive about this," said Mr Elbaum. "This has taken over my life. We have a programme with the school system. We want to promote art education in our public [state] schools. There will be a schools project in London.

"What keeps us alive is the licensing company. In the US it's Hearst and in the UK it's National Magazine Co. This is for the official image.

"We're licensing collections that people love; giftware, four-inch-high ceramic reproductions of the cows. They have sold extraordinarily well. At Christmas time they were the number one item in giftshops."

In the States, the tiny gift cows sell for between £10 and £20 apiece. "The licensing money is for us, strictly for profit," explained Mr Elbaum, who said 500 product categories were currently under licence. "We give some of the profit to charity," he added.

However, Mr Elbaum would not disclose any figures for either profits or charitable donations.

"The company is first and foremost a public art exhibition," he explained. "These cows are a three-dimensional canvas. What we want to do is maintain the art aspect of this. As a result of the New York show, some artists there are now doing very well. It's for the public at large. We are trying to bring art to the public."

And that means everyone. Over the next two years, CowParade Holdings Corporation is planning to go truly global. "We have a Kansas City opening at the beginning of June," said Mr Elbaum, "and there's London in June, in September Houston, at the end of the year Sydney, Hawaii in 2002, and Las Vegas. We've had enquiries from about 150 cities around the world."

Meanwhile, the Swiss are planning their own rival cow-based business strategy. "We have more ideas for cow parades," said Mr Blickensdorfer. "There is a cow parade in Luxembourg. They got the rights from us."

As if the wrangling over the cow parade rights were not enough, one former employee of the CowParade Holdings Corporation has himself attempted to set up a potential rival to the bovine beanfeast - using model dolphins in Miami. It's a jungle out there, but only the suits look set to win.