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The artist Susanna Blunt, whose depiction of the late Queen Elizabeth II adorned Canadian coins for decades, is suing a local dealer in Vancouver for damages.

Blunt, whose image of the Queen without her crown was chosen to be stamped onto all of Canada’s coins beginning in 2003, filed a civil claim in the Supreme Court of British Columbia on 30 May against Benjamin Lumb of the Benjamin Lumb Art House, a gallery in Vancouver.

The lawsuit concerns alleged theft of a sculpture at a group show in 2021 that Lumb curated as well as damages to work at an exhibition at Lumb’s former space in West Vancouver in June 2022. The suit also alleges breach of contract and breach of duty of care “in an amount to be assessed” according to the claim. Asked why she waited two years to file the claim, Blunt, who is now 83 years old, cited “ill health”.

The claim alleges that during Blunt’s 2022 solo show, Lumb drilled a hole into one of her sculptures, damaging it; that he knocked over a plinth causing a “domino effect” that damaged other works; that he was “careless and negligent” when packing up her pieces after the show, damaging them; and that one of her sculptures was stolen while under his “care and control”. The claim states that Lumb was apologetic and promised he would repay the artist the value of the stolen work, “but to date has failed to do so”. It also states that he failed to report the theft to the police, as he had promised.

Further allegations include “improper” installation and display of works, failure to display the artist’s biography and achievements, failure to inform visitors that they could see more of her work in her studio and tardiness in sending out exhibition invitations.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Vancouver Sun, has sent ripples through the city’s art community. Lawsuits by artists against galleries are relatively rare in Canada. There have been few cases in the public eye since 2010, when the Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore had a public and legal dispute with her gallery in Toronto over ownership of work and staged a protest, performance and public legal response in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Lumb, whose gallery is currently exhibiting new work by Belmore in a group show to support the Portfolio Prize in aid of emerging artists, tells The Art Newspaper he was shocked to learn of the lawsuit via the Vancouver Sun article.

“I hadn’t had any communication from her since the end of the 2022 show,” he says, disputing Blunt’s allegations. “There had never been any conversation about compensation for anything.” He adds: “This isn’t indicative of my practice. Rebecca Belmore, Graham Gilmore, Attila Richard Lukacs (artists whose work is part of the Portfolio Prize exhibition) all put their faith in me.”

Lumb remembers Blunt’s 2022 solo show as a “success”. “We had a great opening,” he says, “with around 150 people attending.” Although none of her mixed-media sculptures made of salvaged objects sold, Lumb says some of her prints sold.

Regarding the allegations of damaged works, he explains: “We collaboratively dropped a piece as we were placing it on a shelf. It fell and hit a plexiglass shelf. The piece that fell was damaged—but it was not irreparable.”

The stolen sculpture in question, he says, “had gone missing at a co-working space in North Vancouver that was part of the local ‘culture crawl’ event. Susanna knew the context of that space. It went missing because someone at the co-working space stole it.”

Susanna Blunt’s work The Storm, which was stolen from an exhibit at a co-working space in 2021

Lumb says he and the artist “discussed the best way to proceed” and thought that she was going to file a police report. They also told the story to an intern at the local North Shore News in the hopes that publicity might assist in retrieving the sculpture, but “the intern left, and the story was never published”. The sculpture in question—a small assemblage work made of salvaged metal and wood depicting movement—was called The Storm.

Lumb says he hopes to “speak directly to Susanna” and has reached out to her since the lawsuit was filed, with no reply.

Bunt says she cannot comment on specifics due to the ongoing litigation, but that, “in my 58 years of exhibiting (including painting portraits of the likes of Prince Edward and cellist Steven Isserlis), thefts and breakages have happened often in the course of exhibitions large and small, and this time is the fifth for me. Two have paid me at once for theft and for breakages, and three have either blamed an employee or ignored it.”

She echoes Lumb’s surprise that the lawsuit has elicited press coverage at all. “I had perhaps naively assumed that this private business matter could have been resolved by a judge without anyone else knowing about it,” she says. “This would have been far more dignified for Mr. Lumb, and for me.”

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