Shared from the 2018-07-30 Linn's Stamp News Weekly eEdition

Meet the sculptor behind the Vegas Liberty forever stamp $3.6 million settlement

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The United States Lady Liberty forever stamp was issued Dec. 1, 2010. Sculptor Robert S. Davidson poses in 1996 with part of the Lady Liberty sculpture before it was stained with the final color and installed. Photo courtesy of Robert S. Davidson.

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The man who is in line to get the most money for artwork on a United States postage stamp says what he really wanted was recognition for his sculpture — not money.

But if a federal judge’s ruling is upheld, Robert S. Davidson, the Nevada sculptor whose Lady Liberty design shocked postal officials, will get about $3.6 million. A story on the settlement was published in the July 23 Linn’s.

The forever stamps at the center of the case were first issued in 2010, and at the time U.S. Postal Service officials thought they showed a photograph of the Statue of Liberty in New York City. It was soon revealed, though, that the photo was of the Lady Liberty statue Davidson had created for the New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

As shown in the time line included with this report, Davidson filed suit for copyright infringement against the Postal Service in November 2013.

The recent (June 29) decision by U.S. Court of Federal Claims should give Davidson, who started working in plaster as a teenager washing down stucco walls, a share of the acclaim most stamp artists achieve.

Even after the stamp image was acknowledged to be of a Las Vegas replica — not the iconic statue in New York Harbor — Davidson said others were still getting all the media attention.

The photographer who captured an image of his statue and the New York New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas where it stands seemed to be getting more attention than the self-taught sculptor, Davidson said.

In a July 5 telephone interview with Linn’s, Davidson said immediately after the Postal Service acknowledged it had inadvertently selected his statue for a Lady Liberty forever stamp, USPS officials praised his design.

But after he complained to them — and postal lawyers became involved — Davidson said he was ignored.

His complaint to the Postal Service “just never went anywhere ... It just didn’t go anywhere.”

Despite his June 29 victory in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, Davidson said he remains puzzled by that aspect of the case.

Why did Postal Service officials switch from praise to repeatedly attacking his statue?

The 64-year-old artist said his lawyers have advised him that the court fight is probably not over, and that the Postal Service is likely to appeal the 37-page opinion of Judge Eric G. Bruggink.

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Sketches used by Davidson in creating his Lady Liberty sculpture include a dimensioning graph that plots out the face of the sculpture, and a sketch depicting more of the sculpture that was created to show a structural steel problem. Davidson fixed the issue at 150 feet above the ground supported by a crane. Photos courtesy of Robert S. Davidson.

In his ruling, the judge showered praise on the Las Vegas statue and chided the Postal Service for not having apologized to Davidson.

“Mr. Davidson’s statue, although invoking an existing world-famous statue, is an original, creative work,” the judge wrote.

In a footnote, Bruggink noted that even after it discovered the image on the stamp was of Davidson’s Vegas Liberty statue, “USPS declined to update its informational bulletin with Mr. Davidson’s name.”

To Davidson, the ruling gave him the recognition that he sought for nearly five years as the Postal Service maneuvered to quash his claim for damages over his copyrighted design.

Asked if he was eager to challenge the Postal Service in the courts, Davidson said, “Not at all.”

When he was asked during the two-week trial why he sought damages from the government, he responded, “I didn’t know how they would acknowledge me.”

“I don’t believe after the fact that they would put my name on the stamp,” he said.

Davidson testified he became increasingly enamored of his statue as he worked on the design.

“I’m very proud of her and it’s just something I don’t think lightly of,” he testified.

After getting stonewalled by postal officials, Davidson said he had trouble finding a law firm that would take the case.

A Minnesota firm that had promised to file the case suddenly withdrew because of what Davidson was told might be a possible conflict of interest with Getty Images.

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Several steps were involved in creating and installing the Lady Liberty sculpture: Davidson with partially completed maquette (small-scale preliminary model) in the dimensioning jig used to transfer relative points used for sculpting the full-size statue; a close-up of the face prior to installation; a section of the head and right shoulder prior to installation of crown points; Davidson’s nieces and nephew in front of the tablet; sections of the sculpture being installed; and sections of the statue prior to installation.

Photos courtesy of Robert S. Davidson.

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Getty Images was the photo company that had granted the Postal Service a license to use a photo of the Davidson sculpture on the stamp.

Two women, who worked with Davidson on his copyright applications for Lady Liberty, steered him to the Las Vegas law firm of James J. Pisanelli and Todd L. Bice. They filed a complaint in November 2013. What followed was nearly five years of legal maneuvering.

Postal Service lawyers attacked Davidson’s statue as “nothing original” and claimed the Postal Service had a “fair use” right to use the image in any event.

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Bruggink rejected both moves and ordered the case to trial in September 2017.

After two weeks of testimony, Davidson said the judge called the lawyers into his chamber and told them he was planning to rule for Davidson.

The judge heard both sides to try to settle before he issued his opinion, Davidson said.

But nothing came of the judge’s suggestion, and the government lawyer continued to hammer at some of the same questions about his art as the trial concluded, Davidson said.

“I couldn’t believe how long and expensive it would be,” he said of the litigation.

With the help of an assistant, Davidson did all the sculpting on his Lady Liberty, working days and nights to complete the project on time.

“Everything on the stamp is 100 percent of my work,” he said.

“It was a passionate project.”

The hotel developers gave him freedom to decide how his statue would look.

Davidson said that he used facial images of his ailing mother-in-law and his own mother to create the facial design of the sculpture that is featured on the stamp.

At one time, Davidson was supposed to be flown to New York to take a helicopter flight around Liberty Island and view Auguste Bartholdi’s masterpiece firsthand, but that never came to be. He did visit the statue, seeing it as any tourist would.

During the trial, the government brought a National Park Service representative from New York to testify about the two designs, Davidson said.

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The finished sculpture from Oct. 9, 1996. The plaque in the center crown point has a dedication to his mother-in-law who passed away after a battle with cancer. Photo courtesy of Robert S. Davidson.

The park official was shown a Lady Liberty image and asked if he could identify it, Davidson said. “Oh that’s the statue in Las Vegas,” the official immediately replied to the dismay of government lawyers, according to Davidson. As for Bruggink, “he pretty well knew the case. He definitely understood what we were saying,” Davidson said. He added that the judge seemed to understand the technical details of how he had created his statue. As for his future, Davidson said he hopes to do some touch-up painting on his Lady Liberty and perhaps move to some public art works. “I’m just a hands-on operator,” he said, noting that he “doesn’t even have a website.” He said he wasn’t a stamp collector but had purchased and saved sheets of the Lady Liberty stamps. It was his wife who spotted the stamps on a trip to a post office. “Our statue is on the stamp,” she excitedly exclaimed, apparently sometime before January 2012 according to the judge’s ruling. The error was officially discovered by postal officials on March 18, 2011, when Sunipix, a company that dealt in stock photography, emailed the postmaster general that the forever stamp that had been issued in December 2010 was not the original Lady Liberty but Davidson’s Las Vegas statue. A former head of the U.S. stamp program, who had to cope with the infamous Bill Pickett stamp error during his tenure, has been troubled that yet another U.S. stamp design error has occurred. Azeezally Jaffer went on Facebook to say that he knew the importance of checking stamps designs thoroughly. Jaffer also said postal officials might have been wise to settle the issue out of court. “And to think that all of this could have been avoided by a polite call or, better yet, a letter of apology, a novel idea don’t you think?” Jaffer commented on Facebook.

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