Soaring price of a captured kiss: Rival claimants to the roles in Doisneau's kissing couple photograph are suing for a share of the profits. Julian Nundy reports from Paris

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WHEN IS a kiss more than just a kiss? When it captures that Fifties insouciance which made Paris the post-war capital of glamour and brings the photographer who caught the moment - or set it up - a small fortune.

But now, Robert Doisneau, who took Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville (The Town Hall Kiss), faces two lawsuits from people who claim that they were the subjects of his 1950 photograph, and want a share of the action.

Since Doisneau took the picture, as part of a series commissioned by Life magazine on love in Paris, it has appeared on 410,000 posters and 80,000 postcards. The photographer has sold 200 prints which he processed himself at Ffr 22,500 (pounds 2,700) each. The photograph has been reproduced by advertisers, recycled as a jigsaw puzzle and regularly featured on shower curtains, furniture covers and calendars.

Doisneau's problems began when Denise and Jean-Louis Lavergne, who live in the Paris suburb of Vitry, saw the picture on the cover of Telerama, a television listings magazine, in 1988. 'It was on our 38th wedding anniversary,' said Mrs Lavergne, now 64. 'At the time, I used to smoke,' her 66-year-old husband added, 'and, as was my custom, I was holding the cigarette away with my left hand.'

In 1990, the Lavergnes appeared in the weekly Journal du Dimanche, which said it had found the couple in the famous clinch. Now the Lavergnes are suing for Ffr 500,000 in damages and interest.

Marc Grosset, of the Rapho photo agency which has rights to the picture, believes they are sincere. 'They identify themselves with the photo. They've put it up all over their shop.' None the less, he adds: 'There is no shadow of a doubt that the Lavergnes are not the ones in the photograph'.

He and Doisneau stand by the version of Francoise Bornet, 63, a former actress who said she posed for the picture. Ms Bornet, at whose insistence Rapho denied the Lavergnes' claim two years ago, is suing for Ffr 100,000 and a percentage of the profits.

Doisneau has long insisted that he paid the couple depicted - Ms Bornet says the man was Jacques Cartaud, her boyfriend at the time - but no longer has the receipt to prove it. 'For 15 years we have been saying that the picture used models,' Grosset said, describing the Lavergnes' fixation as 'sad'.

Rapho holds another Doisneau photograph of the same couple kissing as they crossed the Rue de Rivoli near the Hotel de Ville. In this picture the couple wear overcoats, suggesting that they had taken them off for the more famous snap, and strengthening the claim that it was posed. One chance participant has been known for some time. The studious, bespectacled man in a beret behind the couple was a visiting Irishman.

Grosset, who says he expects the Lavergne case to come to court in April, anticipates that the Lavergnes will lose and that Rapho will settle out of court with Ms Bornet. 'People seem to think they can make hundreds of millions of francs,' he said. If the Lavergnes win, it will create 'a very damaging precedent for the profession'.

(Photograph omitted)