KAWS Sues Digital Marketplaces, Claiming ‘Calculated Schemes to Confuse and Deceive’ Collectors

KAWS Sues Digital Marketplaces, Claiming ‘Calculated Schemes to Confuse and Deceive’ Collectors

Because of his street art in the 1990s, his paintings now setting auction records, his collectible toys, his enormous inflatables, and his recent mid-career survey at the Brooklyn Museum, the unmistakable characters created by Brian Donnelly, the artist known as KAWS, have become ubiquitous. A new lawsuit alleges that a number of items out there are fakes. Donnelly and a related company under the name of KAWS have sued several websites vending artworks that the artists says are counterfeits.  

Filed today in the Southern District Court of New York, the lawsuit centers around Homeless Penthouse, a website that vends luxury goods and artworks, from mugs bearing Takashi Murakami’s signature motifs to a bathmat with the Chanel logo on it. Available for purchase on Homeless Penthouse’s site are a host of works listed under KAWS’s name, ranging from items priced at less than $100 to a sculpture said to be made for Dior and priced at just under $3,500. 

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Donnelly’s lawsuit was filed against Jonathan Anand, who runs Homeless Penthouse, Penthouse Theory, Hideout.NYC, Incognito, and Young Neon; Dylan Jovan Leong Yi Zhi, who the lawsuit claims was formerly an intern for Anand, and who runs the competing Penthouse Collective out of Singapore; and David Kang, who the suit accuses of aiding and abetting Anand and Leong. The Penthouse Theory and Penthouse Collective, as well as OSell DinoDirect China Limited, a shipping company, are also named as defendants.

The lawsuit claims that Anand, Leong, and Kang are involved in a complex grouping of entities, all with similar names to Homeless Penthouse. The entities appear to take the form of digital marketplaces, editorial arms, and membership networks, though what each one offers, and whether they are officially connected, is unclear based on each one’s online presence. At least one of the entities’ websites appeared to no longer be functional when ARTnews went to press.

On one website bearing its name and logo, Homeless Penthouse’s shop calls itself an “iconic lifestyle brand.” On another website, for what appears to be a network for enrollees in membership program, Homeless Penthouse labels itself “a cultural membership with an exclusive community of artists, musicians and free thinkers.”

But the new lawsuit alleges that Homeless Penthouse is neither of these things, calling it “a vehicle for selling purported KAWS, Supreme and Takashi Murakami items, as well as wall art and custom designs.”

The artist alleges that these entities committed trademark and copyright infringement, and is seeking $10 million in punitive damages, as well as up to millions of dollars more in statutory fines for trademark counterfeiting, trademark infringement, unfair competition, trademark dilution, and copyright infringement. Donnelly’s legal team is also seeking to obtain an injunction against Homeless Penthouse and its related entities. Donnelly said he would donate any monetary gains from the suit to the New York–based services organization Coalition for the Homeless.

Attempts to reach Anand and Leong via their respective businesses were unsuccessful. OSell did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and ARTnews was unable to find contact information for Kang.

According to the lawsuit, Homeless Penthouse and the other businesses “intentionally, maliciously, willfully and/or recklessly continue to reproduce, copy and prepare derivative works” by KAWS.

It also claims an FAQ page on Homeless Penthouse’s website, accessible as recently as September, dodged answering whether the objects it sells are authentic works that are licensed by their creators. “These obfuscating, tongue-in-cheek statements are feeble attempts to escape the obvious: the purported KAWS items for sale on the Homeless Penthouse Websites are deliberate fakes,” the suit alleges.

Richard Golub, the lawyer who is representing KAWS, said, “In the art world where lots of artists don’t undertake to protect their works, this is an interesting decision by an artist to step out into the marketplace and put a stop to this.” 

KAWS’s riffs on characters from SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons, all with their eyes Xed out, have been widely seen within art galleries and outdoors, in the form of large-scale installations. But versions of his works have also become sought after in the form of collectibles, with collaborations with brands like A Bathing Ape, Supreme, and others regularly making headlines within the worlds of fashion, art, and beyond. 

In a statement, Donnelly said he was now taking legal action “to finally end years of unlawful counterfeiting infringement, enrichment on the sale, and promotion of counterfeit KAWS product. The defendants’ unlawful counterfeiting campaign uses multiple entities and calculated schemes to confuse and deceive KAWS collectors around the world.”

According to the lawsuit, Homeless Penthouse, Penthouse Theory, and Incognito were offering 160 counterfeit objects as of mid-October. Among the objects currently being sold as KAWS works on these sites are a sculpture of Pinocchio, toys featuring the artist’s signature character with crossed-out eyes, and rugs based on his abstractions.

In his statement, the artist added, “A fake reproduction is distinct from an original piece of art inspired by popular culture. Every collector deserves confidence in the authenticity of the work they own, and after years of [their] deceiving my collectors around the world, I’m taking action to put an end to these unlawful practices.”

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