Left: Dark Horse Popeye Toy (photo via). Right: Popeye sculpture by Jeff Koons Left: Dark Horse Popeye Toy (photo via). Right: Popeye sculpture by Jeff Koons
Fine Art

Did Jeff Koons Just Make $28 Million By Plagiarizing A Dark Horse Popeye Toy? [Update: No, He Had Permission To Copy]

Last night Jeff Koons sold a sculpture of Popeye for over $28 million. Today, evidence has emerged that Koons may not have designed the sculpture. In the comments of our previous post about the Popeye sculpture, Brew reader Alex Kirwan pointed out that Koons’s sculpture bears a substantial similarity to a Dark Horse-produced Popeye PVC figure released in 2002.

Left: Dark Horse Popeye Toy (photo via). Right: Popeye sculpture by Jeff Koons

Without seeing the Popeye sculpture and figurine in person, it’s hard to speak with definitiveness, but after closely examining the available photos of each, Koons’s sculpture looks like an exact 1:1 replica of the Dark Horse toy. Just take a look at the opened can top—it is copied down to the last detail in a way that could not be mere coincidence.

Now, before Koons made this Popeye sculpture, he also created an oil painting in 2008 called “Triple Popeye.”

“Triple Popeye” (2008) by Jeff Koons.

The painting is a dead giveaway that it’s based on a photo of the toy. The most obvious giveaway that Koons used the toy as the basis for his painting and sculpture is the tank tattoo on Popeye’s left arm. While Popeye will occasionally sport a tattoo on his upper arm, it is not a specific design, and I have never seen that tank design used on anywhere but this toy.

I don’t know who designed the toy—Leslie Cabarga? Stephen DeStefano?—but perhaps they could confirm whether their design of Popeye was an original pose that was unique to that PVC figure line or if it was an existing pose and design?

So what does all this mean? The sculpture that Koons sold at Sotheby’s last night does not appear to have been done in collaboration with Popeye’s owner, King Features. [See update #2 below: King Features DID give permission for Koons to copy the toy.] The clearest evidence of that was that the Sotheby’s promo video used only public domain shorts and none of the copyrighted films. It would stand to reason then that Koons also didn’t work with Dark Horse to license their Popeye toy as the basis for his sculpture and painting.

Is this legally actionable? That’s a question for lawyers. Koons could, of course, claim fair use, and that is certainly arguable in the case of the painting. The sculpture is another question though. Fair use gives a lot of leeway to artists, but the four factors used to determine fair use don’t necessarily give an artist the right to exactly reproduce an original object for commercial resale. Shepard Fairey, whose Obama “Hope” poster was an even more transformative use of its original source photo than this Popeye sculpture is of its source, still ended up in legal trouble. Fairey ended up settling out of court with the Associated Press news agency after a judge told him he would lose the case.

UPDATE #2: According to this 2012 article in Art Newspaper about Koon’s numerous lawsuits over copyright infringement, Koons received permission from King Features to use Popeye for this sculpture. So, no infringement here. One now wonders if the work-for-hire artist who got paid to design a plastic toy, and instead wound up designing a $28 million sculpture, received any additional compensation? (Thanks to the commenter “byarhouse” for pointing this article out.)

UPDATE #1: In 1992, Jeff Koons was involved in a lawsuit, Rogers v. Koons, in which he made a sculpture based on a photograph of a man and a woman holding puppies. He argued that it was a fair use parody and lost the case. According to Wikipedia:

The Court found both “substantial similarity” and that Koons had access to the picture. The similarity was so close that the average lay person would recognize the copying, a measure for evaluation. Thus the sculpture was found to be a copy of the work by Rogers.

On the issue of fair use, the court rejected the parody argument, as Koons could have constructed his parody of that general type of art without copying Rogers’ specific work. That is, Koons was not commenting on Rogers’ work specifically, and so his copying of that work did not fall under the fair use exception.

  • Typical

    Well, Jeff Koons is a terrible hack, and this kind of appropriation and blatant laziness is expected from the contemporary art crowd, so honestly this is pretty par for the course.

  • colormerad

    The Answer is yes… yes he did.

  • Pelvis

    Why am I not surprised. :-/

  • Why is this even an article? Don’t get me wrong I’m not picking a side but lately I’ve disliked how the majority of the articles on this site have all become just negative overhyped bullshit. Especially when Amid pens. The only reason I come back to the site now is to see the artist of the day because at least those articles inspire and positively promote this industry. Yes there are negative aspects going on in this industry, like in any other, but I’d like to be shown both sides and I’d also like to be handed either in a way that doesn’t have to resort to the immature bullying that is sometimes displayed on here (such as the Laika article).

    • AmidAmidi

      Really? The articles I see on the front page right now are an interview with Ralph Bakshi, art exhibit news about DreamWorks, Chuck Jones and Marc Davis, an interview with ‘Oh Willy…’ directors Marc James Roels and Emma De Swaef, and a piece on the Akira fan trailer. If you think all of that is ‘negative overhyped bullshit,’ then we can’t help you.

      • Cementimental

        one article was enough, obviously the whole premise of the artwork is that it’s a grandiose lavish copy of a pop culture cheap toy, it just looks stupid acting mock-outraged about it.

        • mreep

          I wholly agree with Bryant. I definitely feel like these articles are really scraping the bottom of an empty barrel. I’m an animation enthusiast, but these posts are watering down cartoon brew’s relevancy/name. Most of Amidi’s articles (be it the topic of this artist’s sculpture or the CG stills of charlie brown’s latest incarnation) truly make me wish for an animation site that explores both concepts and topics that cater to more creative thinkers. Take a hard look in the mirror and make that decision please. Your catering to the lowest level of consumers right now, and the content quality is suffering.

      • Don’t get me wrong this week and the past few articles have been fantastic, I just am tired of seeing these unnecessary negative filler articles or articles just meant to negatively harp on something or someone. I should’ve phrased it better and that was my fault. The recent articles since this have been great.

  • Rufus

    Jeff Koons needs to crawl back into the hole whence he came.

  • Terry Craig

    This wouldn’t have risen an eyebrow if it was done in the 60s, when Roy Lichtenstein did it first, or later when Warhol (and others) did. So why is this such a hot topic now? I don’t even think you can call it “plagiarizing” when Koons didn’t even attempt to conceal that it’s a copy. That’s what it is; he didn’t change a thing but its material and colors. It has been long established how much of a hack Koons is, but those who’ve bought his shit will keep upholding his shit’s financial value to stay insanely rich. Anyone interested in artistic value has long moved on.

    • 6comicfan66

      Lichtenstein was a hack as well. in a time without the Internet it was a lot easier for him to escape criticism for his “image appropriation” as who really got a chance to publicly comment on art apart from critics? but he is generally held in high disregard by the comics illustration crowd now.

  • JSintheStates

    The rip-off is obvious to anyone with an IQ above 85! The original designer deserves compensation! But do I feel sorry for the 1% billionaire who got taken? Not a chance!

  • apple

    and Koons had the NERVE to try and sue a balloon artist for plagiarizing “his” balloon dog sculpture. Riiiiight.

  • apple

    Sorry- I remembered that wrong… “Koons has also threatened others under copyright, claiming that a bookstore in San Francisco infringed his proprietary rights by selling bookends in the shape of balloon dogs.[107] Koons abandoned that claim after the lawyer representing the bookstore filed a complaint for declaratory relief stating, “As virtually any clown can attest, no one owns the idea of making a balloon dog, and the shape created by twisting a balloon into a dog-like form is part of the public domain”from Wikipedia

    • Chänz Mikkael Høris

      thats an awesome retort by the bookstore haha

  • NinjinSteve

    28 MILLION!? For a Popeye sculpture!?

    • Ant G

      you’re buying the name of the artist than the art. It’s an investment. And collectors who invest in his art are going to try their hardest to keep his name fashionable as an important artist of his era. Maybe the same way we idolize Michelangelo and Picasso because art history books told us to, people in the future will too see Koons as a genius because the people who invested in him made sure of that.

      • gwalla

        See: Roy Lichtenstein

      • Max

        Perhaps but Michelangelo and Picasso were actually talented artists not a bunch of hacks photo-copying other peoples hard work. THAT is the difference.

      • Alexander Dam

        Yeah… but seriously. Who in their right mind would want to “invest” in Koons? If you could spend $28 million on ANY piece of art, why a Koons. Ew.

      • Martin Wagner

        The only way people in the future would ever think of Koons the way we think of Michelangelo and Picasso is if the movie Idiocracy turns out to be pure cinematic prophecy.

        • sidney

          I thought it already had.

  • Jason Enos

    Koons is a joke. I wanted to photograph myself next to a Chuck Close self portrait that was in the part of the gallery where a new piece was being installed, so I asked the guard if it was okay to take the photo. The guard told me yes, as long as I made very measure not to photograph the nearby Koons piece, because Koons could sue me if he ever saw the photograph. I was puzzled, what Koons piece did he mean?

    That heap of junk that I thought was an “in progress” piece. Koons called it “finished”. And he plans to sue anyone who photographs the piece of crap, even in part. But he can appropriate whatever he wants and call it art.

    I want to photograph it and tell him it’s okay, because I’m only appropriating the sculpture into a photograph, so it’s fair use.

    What a joke.

  • Cementimental
  • Mgon ♥

    This altering of pre-existing art is no different than what has been done tens of thousands of times already. There are countless pieces of art out there that are just alterations of somebody else’s original art.

  • top_cat_james


  • Reminds me of the time Rich Buckler sued Fantagraphics for saying that he plagiarized Jack Kirby by redrawing panels originally drawn by Kirby. It was obvious that he, at the very least, used Kirby’s work as a template and redrew everything a la Kirby. The case dragged out for a while, but eventually, Buckler lost because the judge’s eyes worked just fine.

  • Vex

    Just out of curiosity…are any of you people who are talking shit about Koons even artists?
    I’m going to bet you’re not.
    Regardless of whether you can draw a stick figure or paint the Mona Lisa or sculpt David…you really need to get over it.
    Now…before I say anything else, let me state that I find it ludicrous that the Popeye piece went for so much money….but…
    That doesn’t change the fact that this guy is doing sculpture that no one else is doing…or even CAN do.
    Let me see ANY of you work stainless steel to artistic perfection….especially going from whatever scale the PVC figure was, to 1/1.
    Are you even aware of what goes into that process?
    The fact that he was able to so accurately copy a pre-existing sculpture, in that medium, at that size, is amazing in its own right…and he has done plenty of stuff that weren’t copies of anything.
    Art, in every medium, has been copied and recopied so often in the last few centuries, that it’s actually kind of surprising anyone even cares anymore.
    And the updates specifically say he was given permission…so why even bother bitching?
    All this negativity sounds like a shit ton of jealousy and butthurt that whatever you do doesn’t make millions, to me.

    • AnimationGuy

      Actually, many visitors and those who participate in the discussion are professional artist, some of whom are world renowned.

      So… good job insulting everyone.

      The difficulty of a medium doesn’t make something more of an art, by that logic, I should repaint works from the masters with a stick and my own feces on a canvas of Starbucks napkins, and they would attain even higher value.

      • Alexander Dam

        But you didn’t.

    • To be fair, Koons isn’t actually involved at all the in physical aspects of production when it comes to his art pieces. He’s “the ideas man.” So I wouldn’t be too impressed with his ability to work stainless steel. Which isn’t to say that they can’t be impressive sculptures, just that a good amount of credit should go to the people in his workshop.

      • Vex

        I completely agree that if he has a team of people, they should all get credit. But I don’t think it takes away from his creative eye, to have a team.

    • DOntarnoDicaptorisrpoe

      You could say that most of people in this website are better artist than Koons. For this talented people that makes animation or art,this plagiarized sculpture seen like kid’s clay toy.

      • Vex

        No, you could not say that, because you flaunt the word plagiarism and apparently have no clue what it means.
        For one…Koons had permission.
        This AUTOMATICALLY removes any claims of plagiarism, because you can not plagiarize something you have permission to copy..

  • Lo

    Wait a minute, King Features already knew that this will be sold expensive right? There is obviously a deal here. So end of the story, everybody’s happy

    • Chris Meeks

      They gave him permission to use the likeness. I doubt he was given permission to basically chrome someone’s sculpture work. That’s just lazy.

  • WrennS

    No he cannot claim fair use. There’s no educational reason behind it, he made money off of it, and it’s not any kind of parody.

  • wgan

    what kind half wit buys this thing???

  • Arcadio

    I would say that Jeff koons art is made in the tradition of pop art. Like Warhol, he is using things of pop and consum culture and blows them up, reproduces them etc. Using toys, packaging, products, logos etc. is part of this kind of art concept. The only one who can be critiqued and questioned is the person who is willing to pay millions for it. But I think everybody is allowed to spend their money the way they want to…

  • avery

    I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a rip-off today.

  • MikeHeXt

    If he gets wrecked for it, its gonna hold a ripple effect on the custom action figures market.

  • Max W

    Anyone who thinks Jeff Coons is a hack has obviously never seen this piece:

  • Roberto Severino

    So much for the buzz this story got. Seeing Update #2 reminded me of how important thorough fact checking is before making posts that might rile people up unnecessarily.

  • Ryan

    Did koons consign the work to auction? If not he did not make 28 million dollars

  • Martin Wagner

    In the art world back then, apprenticeships were a part of the whole process. The next generation of masters would study under the current one, and yeah, work for them.

  • Vex

    I’m guessing you don’t know about me and make assumptions based on…nothing.
    I do happen to be an artist, and I am definitely not motivated by money.
    I am motivated by inspiration.
    Koons pieces have inspired me…therefore all you people coming here and acting like you’re better than him because you’re jealous of his money is ridiculous.

  • Vex

    I completely agree, and at no point did I say that non-artists were not allowed to have opinions.
    My point was, if you are not an artist, how the hell would you have any experience with what it takes to create these pieces?
    Answer: You don’t.

  • Cementimental

    Re: the inevitable update, Betteridge wins again. :D http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge's_law_of_headlines

  • Susan Wood

    But isn’t this always the whole point of everything Koons does? He designs nothing himself and makes nothing himself. He just has his minions (who, I don’t doubt, are exact knock-offs of the ones in “Despicable Me”) make monumental versions of pop culture kitsch, calls it “AHHHHHT” and collects the big bucks. Call it irony or (as I prefer) call it the long con, but that’s what he does.

  • Martin Wagner

    Okay, so it’s really big and shiny. This makes it not hackwork… how?