On the 16th of July 2015, a couple of hours before flying back to Amsterdam i rented a car in downtown Washington D.C and drove for a about an hour to Warrenton, VA to take a photo of a residential property located on one of the main thouroughfares of the small town:
So what triggered my interest in this rather unremarkable building in an unremarkable town? The house on Waterloo Street was home to HCR international, a company that since 1998 has been managing the copyright in the works of the Dutch born artist Piet Mondrian (1872 - 1944). As a result the name of the company featured prominently in the copyright notices alongside reproductions of the works of Mondrian on Museum websites and exhibition catalogues all over the world.
I had developed an interest in HCR international when we were working on the “Wiki loves Art/NL” publication in 2010. During the work on the book i became aware of the somewhat dubious reputation that a certain Hillary Richardson (presumably the H and the R in HCR international) had among museum curators who dealt with works by Piet Mondriaan. Apparently Ms Richardson was rather demanding when it came to providing permission for preproductions of Mondrian’s works. Not only was she known for asking high royalty rates (see this 2015 NY Times article for examples), she was also known to be very specific with regards to the copyright notices. According to a 2011 art magazine article, HCR generally demanded that copyright notices are placed vertically alongside any reproductions, that Mondriaan name must be written with one ‘a’ (the original Dutch spelling is with ‘aa’). Evidence from around the web also seems to indicate that she insisted that HCR international is named in all copyright notices.
So how did the copyrights of the most famous 20th century artist from the Netherlands end up in a residential house in Warrenton, Virginia? Like many other artists from continental Europe, Mondriaan had to flee from the Nazis. During a short stay in Paris in 1934 he became friends with the American artist Henry Holtzman. In 1940 Holtzman arranged for Mondrian’s passage from London to New York City, where he rented an apartment-studio for Mondrian. During the next three and a half years he was one of Mondrian’s most intimate associates.
When Mondriaan died of pneumonia in 1944 he willed his estate (including the copyrights) to Holtzman. Holtzman continued to live for a considerable period but eventually died in 1987. His estate, including the Mondriaan copyrights, fell into the hands of his three children, who set up the Mondrian/Holtzman trust. In 1999 they hired the art historian Hillary Richardson to manage the copyrights on behalf of the trust and, as a result, from 1999 onwards HCR international managed Mondriaan copyrights from the House in Warrenton, VA.According to its website (2015 version), the Mondrian trust…
… aims to promote awareness of Mondrian’s artwork and to ensure the integrety of his work. We intend to carry forward his legacy and influence a new generation of artists by managing and encouraging copyright use for Mondrian’s artwork. The trust grants licenses and copyright permissions to those whishing to reproduce Mondrian’s images.
In reality, as evidenced by the way that Ms Richardson operated, it is fairly clear that HCR international was not primarily concerned with Mondrian’s artistic legacy and integrity but rather interested in bringing in licensing revenue. In an email exchange between Ms Richardson and me in 2010 she declined an to contribute to our publication because “Mondrian is keeping me very busy!”.
Things changed when the Mondriaan copyrights expired on the 1st of January 2015. When i contacted Ms. Richardson again in early 2015 to see if she would be willing to talk about how the fact that Mondriaan’s work was now in the Public Domain, she declined pointing out that because of the expiration of the Mondriaan copyrights, she was no longer working for the trust:
Dear Paul Keller, Thank you for your inquiry. Due to the expiration of Mondrian’s copyrights worldwide–except for many in the US and in Spain, I decided not to renew my contract with the Mondrian Trust for the limited rights. That has given me the opportunity to consult for a producer of educational art apps and to use myart historical background researching works in private collections here in Washington, many of which span several centuries and cultures. They are new and rewarding challenges after 16 years working withMondrian’s incredible images …
That email was singend off with a new adress for HCR international:
HCR International 4100 Cathedral Avenue Washington DC
So when i visited the house on 85 Waterloo street in July 2015 both the Mondriaan copyrights and HCR international were no longer residing there. Still, looking at the house on that hot summer day, I could not stop but wondering how Mondrian, the 20th century icon of modernist abstract art, would had felt knowing that more that half a century after his death his copyright would be administered from a small residential property in rural Virginia.
More pictures of the house and Warrenton, VA in this flickr album