Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Gee's Bend quilter Annie Mae Young files lawsuit

Annie Mae Young of Gee's Bend, AL has filed suit against William Arnett and Tinwood Ventures of Atlanta, according to the Associated Press and other online sources, claiming she was "cheated financially by her promoters and corporate clients." Also named in the suit are Kathy Ireland Worldwide, Shaw Living, and Visa.

The wildly popular Gee's Bend quilts - a collection of quilts created over the last several decades by black women from the Gee's Bend, AL area - have been exhibited in museums nationally for the last four years. Several of the distinctive quilt designs have been used on items such as Kathy Ireland Home Collection in 2004 and "The Quilts of Gee's Bend" rugs. There was even a Gee's Bend debit card from Visa.

According to the suit, Tinwood claims to own the intellectual property rights to the quilts produced in Gee's Bend prior to 1984, and, in turn, the company has leased those rights to manufacturers.

While several of the companies involved in marketing products based on Gee's Bend quilts state in promotional literature that the quilters "receive a royalty" for every item sold, Young's lawsuit states she has never received "one penny from these enterprises."

In fact, Young said, she had no idea her quilt designs were being used for anything beyond a book, much less a line of rugs selling for $5,000 a piece. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for "commercial misappropriation of her work and likeness."

"I don't know nothing about them making all those rugs. Most of them are made out of my quilts. They've got them all over the world and I didn't even know they were doing that," Young said. "They didn't explain nothing to me about rugs and bedspreads and coffee pots. All I know was that they were selling my quilts and giving me a little something for them."
The Associated Press article says "attorneys for the Arnetts and Tinwood den[y] the allegations and says the lawsuit was filed to "harass" and extort money..."

We're sure to hear more about this case in the weeks and months to come. The debate will continue .... Is the fame the quilters of Gee's Bend have received compensation enough? Give credit to the Arnetts for promoting the quilts to a worldwide audience and increasing the market value of the quilts? Were any of the Gee's Bend quilters unfairly compensated? Did the quilters really agree to give up their quilt designs to be licensed by others? I'm sure you can list a dozen other debatable questions around race, gender, educational level, income and "ownership" of art. Feel free to leave a comment here.
In the meantime, below are a few posts highlighting an array of Gee's Bend products, experiences, and research. (AP Photo of Mrs. Young by Chitose Suzuki.)


Lori said...

I don't doubt Ms. Young's claims. Black folk artists have routintely/historically been taken advantage of, exploited and the like in these United States. It is both a sin and a shame.

From what I've seen, oft-times the bulk of the damage (stealing) is done after the artist is dead and buried. At least Ms. Young is alive and appears both well and saavy enough to put up a good fight (smile).

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything Lori said. In addition I hope Ms Young has some saavy lawyers working on her behalf! She has clearly been taken advantage of...especially for any of her particular quilts or designs that have been used!

I like to put my head in the sand and pretend racism isn't a huge issue today but, even I have to admit that some companies have probably seen the Gees Bend quilters as perhaps easy targets for their own economic gain. I'm so glad to see Ms. Young is fighting back and proving them wrong!!

Karoda said...

My first response is to beg a haunting exploitation instinctual to capitalism??? I think the initial plan to benefit the center/foundation where they quilt is mighty nice but if the quilters and there families are not directly increasing their wealth then promotions reek of injustice. I hope the quilters will come to see that any small benefits they've received should not exclude them from personal gain also. And I hope they guard against any entity that attempts to exploit further any disagreement among the quilters regarding this suit. Right on to Mrs. Young!

perrykat said...

My research and interviews lead me to believe that Ms. Young has a case. The Arnett's put little or nothing in writing. Unfortunately, the Arnett's have plenty of money, and they will probably either fight against her or attempt to pay her off with a shamefully small sum.

It is also as Karoda puts it: capitalism (and the history of art collection in this culture) breeds this sort of thing.

I am behind Ms. Young 100%

Thanks for blogging on this subject.

Katherine Perry
(member of the Auburn Women's Studies research team on Gee's Bend Quilts and their Quilters)

Sally L. Smith said...

Thanks for sharing this information. Your blog is very interesting and I can't wait until I have more time to read more. Go Ms. Young! is all I have to say!

Miriam said...

hi kyra, thanks for stopping by my blog. amazing what's going on with those terrific gees bend quilts. people have no shame these days.

Sonji Hunt said...

I'm glad that Ms. Young is standing up for herself. I also agree with everything Lori wrote.

Anonymous said...

It tears at my heart that "The Suits" have once again offered an opportunity for the world to see unique art followed by lots of opportunism. I regularly send fabric to the quilting ladies as I know the area is economically depressed. May God help Ms. Young and her community.

Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see if, given the fame of Gee's Bend quilts, the media will cover the impending lawsuit.
Thanks again for another interesting article.

Anonymous said...

Go Ms. Young. You have every right to be compensated for all of your stolen ideas. Their selling rugs for $5,000. How much was given to Ms. Young to purchase the quilt or her ideas. A drop in the bucket...guaranteed.

There was another lawsuit recently concerning a quilter and a very ritzy hotel in New York. The artist was in New York and stopped in the lobby to look around. Awhile later she realized that the rug in the lobby she was standing on was HER design from a quilt she had sold.

That woman settled and, I'm sure, was very well compensated as Ms. Young should be. The artists need to be contacted and ASKED to use their ideas when a piece is used on other items or patterns copied. Large corporations have no right to take advantage of anyones ideas regardless of their race. Ms. Young you deserve to be compensated for your talent. Go get em!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I mis-wrote that a quilt had been sold and a design stolen for a rug. It was actually the book Kaleidascopes and Quilts and the author/designer whose idea was stolen is Paula Nadelstern.

Anonymous said...

There is an update to this story. Loretta Pettway has also filed suit. See Ben Raines article in the June 15th Mobile Press Register.

Laura said...

While I don't deny that it is very possible and even probable that these quilters have been exploited, I'd like to offer a word of support for Tinwood and the Arnetts. I'm speaking from a bit of a bias because I recently took a class from one of the company's editors and had a chance to talk to Bill Arnett for several hours. Unfortunately the entire article has to be purchased but if you check out this Raw Vision article ( you can see a defense of the Thornton Dial case following the 60 Minutes episode that essentially ruined the reputations of both the artist and Mr. Arnett. In this case, the show fabricated elements of their relationship, showing Dial as an inarticulate fool and Arnett as an exploiter. In truth, Arnett mortgaged his house in order to pay for Dial's own house (that he could not purchase due to credit issues) that Arnett was attempting to transfer to Dial's name. I am also shocked to hear about the law suit and hope that justice is served but hope that both sides are given a fair chance.

Unknown said...

Kyra - thank you for keeping us updated on the Gee Bend quilting scandal. It is a shame that the creative genius of these elderly Black women is being exploited.

peace, Villager

Anonymous said...

About the only paper regualrly covering the controversy over the Gee's Bend quilters is the Mobile Press-Register. Its index can be found at and look for the Mobile paper. Then type in Gee's Bend.

Anonymous said...

Kyra, I'm so glad I stopped by. This is a shame. I am wondering if any of these women had children or grands who could help them through the maze of exploitation.

Racism does fuel the exploitation involved in capitalism. Look around the entire world and its products, from coffee to rubber tires.

I'm going to forward this internationally, as more media should cover this. What's the point of fame, if you can't afford to make your next quilt?

Anonymous said...

(305) 632-4455

Call by Arnetts for End to Allegations Harmful to the Quilters of Gee’s Bend

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes
– Mark Twain

ATLANTA, GA – (Wednesday, June 27, 2007) – Gregory H. Hawley, of White Arnold Andrews & Dowd P.C. of Birmingham, and Gary L. Coulter of Coulter & Associates of Athens, Georgia, co-counsel to William Arnett, Paul Arnett and Matt Arnett, art collectors and promoters of the Quilts of Gee’s Bend, held a press conference today (June 27, 2007) to set the record straight on recent allegations concerning the Quilts of Gee’s Bend.

During the press conference, which took place at 1:00 p.m. at the main conference room of the Birmingham Bar Association, 2021 2nd Avenue North, Birmingham, Alabama, Mr. Coulter and Mr. Hawley discussed the most recent lawsuit and the quilts at issue in that lawsuit, which were on display (images available upon request).

“We called this conference to set the record straight about three quilts that are at issue in a lawsuit filed last Thursday (June 21, 2007) and that were the subject of a recent story in the Mobile newspaper. Plaintiff’s lawsuit makes some remarkable claims. First, the plaintiff claims that the quilts were made by her great-grandmother, a quilter in Gee’s Bend. Second, she claims that two of the quilts are more than 100 years old. Third, she claims that the quilts are priceless,” stated attorneys Coulter and Hawley.
Ten years ago, the Quilts of Gee’s Bend were a local craft that was unrecognized and largely unknown outside the Black Belt of Alabama. The story of Bill Arnett’s recognition of this local craft as significant art is well known. Through his efforts and the efforts of his son, Matt Arnett, these quilts have toured the nation and appeared in dozens of museums that have validated this as an important art form. Now that these quilts are well known -- and some possess great value -- it is important to protect the integrity of Gee’s Bend Quilts. To misrepresent the age of a Gee’s Bend Quilt, or the creator of a Gee’s Bend Quilt, is just as reprehensible as promoting a counterfeit as an original Picasso. Some of these allegations in these lawsuits undermine the good name and good will of the Quilts of Gee’s Bend, to the detriment of the quilt makers, who earn a living through this art.

As Bill Arnett has said, “What is at stake is public confidence and the integrity of the Gee’s Bend Quilts. Ultimately, unreliable attributions can attain the status of settled fact. And the seriousness and reputation of projects about Gee’s Bend Quilts are undermined and are harmed.”
In early summer 2004, there were discussions regarding an exhibition and book about the legacy of Dinah Miller, a former Gee’s Bend resident who, according to family history, came to Alabama from West Africa around 1859. Arlonzia Pettway, Dinah Miller’s great-granddaughter and one of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, asked Matt Arnett to accompany her to Mobile and Pritchard to visit some of her relatives who might have information to share. She also wanted Matt to look at quilts made by her relatives. Arlonzia Pettway, Mary McCarthy, and Matt Arnett traveled to Mobile, and visited the home of Arlonzia’s sister, Lucastle Pettway. After looking at some quilt tops that she had made and meeting several other family members, the group traveled to the home of Lucastle’s daughter, Lucinda Pettway Franklin, who is the plaintiff in this lawsuit. Ms. Franklin showed the group several quilts, including one she claimed was made by her mother and two others that she claimed were made by her great-grandmother, Sally Miller. Matt Arnett inquired as to how she knew the origin of the two older quilts, and Ms. Franklin claimed an uncle had given her that information. Although he believed the quilts to be from a time period after Ms. Miller’s death (July 11, 1943 – death certificate available upon request), Matt Arnett photographed the quilts and then he and Arlonzia asked if he could take the quilts to Atlanta for further study and to obtain conservation information. Ms. Franklin agreed to loan these quilts to Matt Arnett, and he took the quilts back with him to Atlanta, and they have been in his possession until today.

Upon returning to Atlanta, Matt Arnett compared the quilts with other quilts and determined that they were made in the 1950s or the early 1960s. Matt Arnett acknowledged that “we have worked really hard to protect the integrity of the Gee’s Bend Quilts, and didn’t want anyone misrepresenting the quilts or their makers.” He had the quilts verified by experts in the field, who also concluded that the quilts were made in the 1950s or 1960s. Matt Arnett was uncomfortable returning the quilts through the mail, and he expressed this concern to Ms. Franklin as well as his desire to deliver the quilts to her in person. On several occasions, Ms. Franklin told Matt Arnett she was in no rush for the return of the quilts and that all she asked was that he care for them and keep them safe, which he has done.

Based on his consultation with various experts, Matt Arnett knew that the quilts’ origins were not as Ms. Franklin believed them to be. Although Matt Arnett had attempted to convey this to Ms. Franklin several times over the telephone, his attempts had been without success. In April of 2007, Matt Arnett and Ms. Franklin had an email dialogue related to scheduling the return of the quilts. Unfortunately, last Thursday, on the same day Matt Arnett emailed Ms. Franklin to arrange a weekend meeting to return the quilts, Ms. Franklin filed her lawsuit.

As Matt Arnett stated, “this exaggerated dating of the quilts is exactly the type of thing I was trying to protect against, and aside from the quilts’ safe return, was the main reason I had hoped to hand-deliver the quilts to Lucinda [Pettway Franklin].”

The quilts presented at the press conference today (photos available upon request) are the three quilts that were given to Matt Arnett by Lucinda Pettway Franklin at her home. One of them is clearly of a recent vintage, but two are older. These are the two that Ms. Franklin was interested in having Mr. Arnett investigate and authenticate the date of creation.

The quilts depicted in the photographs were taken at the time that Ms. Franklin lent these quilts to Mr. Arnett. Ms. McCarthy (who was present at the press conference today) has verified that these are the three quilts that they collected from the plaintiff.

We have had these quilts appraised by certified appraisers from Georgia and California. The Georgia appraiser, Holly Anderson, appraised the two older quilts as created in 1965. Julie Silber, an appraiser in Albion, California, dated one of the quilts as made between 1950 and 1960, with a value of $250 - $450. Ms. Silber appraised the second quilt as made between 1950 and 1960, and valued at $100 to $250. (Copies of these appraisals are available upon request).

According to these evaluations, these quilts clearly cannot be 100 years old. Moreover, because these quilts were estimated to have been created in the 1950s or 1960s -- and contain fabrics made in the 1950s -- it is impossible to believe they were made by Ms. Franklin’s grandmother, who died in 1943.

Finally, these experts in the field of fabric and quilts indicate that these quilts are worth, at most several hundred dollars. They are not “priceless” as plaintiff claims, or worth $100,000 as was reported in one newspaper story.

Because Ms. Franklin’s claims may have the effect of undermining the integrity and goodwill of Gee’s Bend Quilts, a motion was filed today by the Arnetts’ attorneys for the federal court to appoint its own expert in the field of quilts and fabrics so that these sensational allegations can stop before further damage is done.

When public confidence in the integrity of this art is undermined, the ultimate losers are the women of Gee’s Bend who create these quilts. When the integrity is called into question, art galleries are less likely to represent the women and their quilts. Art museums are less inclined to promote tours of the quilts. Ultimately, the value of these art forms could decline and the demand for them will diminish. This is to the detriment of everyone involved with Gee’s Bend Quilts.

# # #

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I’m saddened to know that the profits made from their work don't benefit the women of Gee's Bend. They should be living in new homes, driving new cars and enjoying the material things that others are enjoying at their expense. To the contrary, not much has changed for these women.

Anonymous said...

Hello all, this is my grandma and I am glad that you all are supporting her..


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I agree with her views on filing a lawsuit. I believe she has a good case!

Jill said...

Sadly Annie Mae Young passed away in December 2012. She was taken advantage of and exploited by Mr. Arnett as were other quilters in Gees Bend. I know the family of Annie Mae Young. This is nothing more than racism once again rearing its ugly head. All Mr. Arnett did was steal from this woman. These quilts were made to keep the family warm in the cold winters when they had no heat or blankets. The quilts hung over the "windows" inside the old rundown shacks to keep the cold drafts from coming inside.They were made from scrap material and stuffed with the cotton they picked.How dare you Mr. Arnett How dare you!

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