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Graffiti Artists Awarded $6.7 Million for Destroyed 5Pointz Murals

Ruling that graffiti — a typically transient form of art — was of sufficient stature to be protected by the law, a federal judge in Brooklyn awarded a judgment of $6.7 million on Monday to 21 graffiti artists whose works were destroyed in 2013 at the 5Pointz complex in Long Island City, Queens.

In November, a landmark trial came to a close in Federal District Court in Brooklyn when a civil jury decided that Jerry Wolkoff, a real estate developer who owned 5Pointz, broke the law when he whitewashed dozens of swirling murals at the complex, obliterating what a lawyer for the artists had called “the world’s largest open-air aerosol museum.”

Though Mr. Wolkoff’s lawyers had argued that the buildings were his to treat as he pleased, the jury found he violated the Visual Artists Rights Act, or V.A.R.A., which has been used to protect public art of “recognized stature” created on someone’s else property.

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The $6.7 million awarded to 21 graffiti artists on Monday was the maximum damages possible for what a jury had ruled was a violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

In an odd legal twist, the judge at that trial, Frederic Block, altered the verdict at the 11th hour to make it merely a recommendation. But on Monday, Judge Block upheld the jury’s decision, and his ruling awarded the artists the maximum damages possible, saying that 45 of the dozens of ruined murals had enough artistic stature to merit being protected. The jury had found that only 36 of the works should be guarded under V.A.R.A.

From the start, the 5Pointz case had pitted two of New York City’s most prominent sectors against each other: the art world and the real estate business. Judge Block’s ruling — and the size of the judgment he awarded — was a decisive victory for the former, said Dean Nicyper, a partner who specializes in art law at the firm Withers Bergman.

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