Portrait of the Artist as a Litigant

What's in a name?" Shakespeare asked. Not a whole hell of a lot, he decided. Today's twist on the old query: "What's in a signature?" For two Cuban-American artists -- one prominent, the other not so much -- the answer is money and reputation. The two are involved in a drama that might have befuddled even the Bard himself. In keeping with the times, it includes lawyers and journalistic inaccuracy.

Armando Valladares is a well-known figure in the world of el exilio. An artist and poet, he spent 22 years as a political prisoner in Castro's jails. After his release in 1982, he was welcomed by Cuban exiles in the United States as a symbol of human rights and resistance to communism. Valladares served as head of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and published a widely read memoir called Against All Hope.

In 1990 he embarked on a career as an artist. Today his paintings, which tend toward the surreal, sell for thousands of dollars at auctions and galleries. He estimates he earned around $60,000 last year from his works.

"Everybody knows Armando Valladares," comments arts and gossip columnist Beatriz Parga of El Diario de las Americas. So Parga was stunned when she visited the popular Cuban eatery La Carreta several months ago and saw paintings on place mats, subsequently referred to in court documents as "doilies," that bore the distinctive Valladares signature. The so-called doilies -- eleven-by-sixteen-inch pieces of paper at the center of every place setting in the seven South Florida La Carretas -- were decorated with colorful pictures of sugar cane, onions, avocados, and rustic wheels.

Parga's glee was apparent in an August 7 column that regaled readers with a tale of the depreciation of a great artist. What would Valladares collectors think of their artist peddling pastels in a popular eatery, she asked her readers. Parga concluded the column with the thought that perhaps Valladares's work should appear in Burger King for the price of a hamburger.

There was only one problem: The pictures were not painted by Armando Valladares but by a muralist and graphic designer named Mario Valladares. Had Parga taken the trouble to study additional paintings of a similar style that lined the walls of La Carreta, she would have discovered an important difference: Though the signatures on the paintings appear remarkably similar to that of the human rights activist-cum-artist, they also include the name "Mario." On the "doilies," the crucial "M." was absent. (La Carreta's owners say it was left out because of space considerations.)

Armando Valladares first learned about the problem signature several days before Parga's column when a friend presented him with a few of the place mats. Valladares showed the signatures to his wife, who at first glance couldn't distinguish between them.

Valladares insists the similarity has tarnished his reputation. "This cheapens my work," Valladares protests. "When an artist who commands a price in the market is confused with an artist who really isn't known, it's damaging."

When Parga's article came out, Armando Valladares called his lawyer Alberto Carbonell. Carbonell then contacted La Carreta owner Felipe Valls, who refused to remove the place mats. On September 16 Valladares sued Valls in circuit court, alleging, among other things, that Valls was exploiting his name.

The Valls family, who say they aided Valladares when he was released from prison, were upset by the lawyer's involvement. "A simple phone call [from Armando] would have gotten the doilies out," insists Felipe Valls, Jr. "The first thing we get [is a call from] a lawyer calling for a guy who [we] helped. That changed things."

Mario Valladares acknowledges that he is not as famous as Armando, but he contends his art is just as worthwhile. The artist, who arrived from Cuba in 1979, insists he had never seen Armando Valladares's signature before the dispute arose. "He owes me respect for my work," Mario Valladares says indignantly.

On Tuesday, September 22, the two sides filed into the chambers of Judge Thomas Wilson, Jr., for a hearing. The artists were instantly recognizable, similar in appearance as well as in signature. Both men are short and deeply tanned, with closely cropped hair. They both wore almost identical blue suits, bright shirts, and ties.

At the hearing (which was scheduled for fifteen minutes but sprawled out to two and a half hours), Armando Valladares asked Judge Wilson to force La Carreta to stop using the offending place mats. The defense sought to show the signatures were different. Lawyers dissected at length the importance of a triangular "A" and the smooth top of an "S". Witnesses testified they had confused the signatures. Mario Valladares brought school composition books to show that he had always signed his name the same way.

An increasingly exasperated Wilson finally refused to order La Carreta's owners to remove the place mats. Neither the artwork nor the signatures would confuse an expert upon close inspection, Wilson stated. The judge reserved his sharpest comments for journalist Parga: "The only actual confusion you have is one article by Diario de las Americas and [Parga] did no homework," said Wilson.

Outside the chambers the two sides tried one last time to make things right. The Vallses' lawyer offered to put the "M." on the place mats. Carbonell refused to rule out the possibility of suing for damages. "So it's just about money," sneered Felipe Valls, Jr. On the street outside the courthouse, Armando Valladares and Carbonell insisted the value of the artist's name had dropped. "You are not going to confuse an expert," acknowledged Carbonell, "but you could confuse the public."

Now it appears the two sides have worked out a compromise. In the future the place mats will carry the initial. "The confusion will end, and I defended my rights," says Armando Valladares.

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Jacob Bernstein
Contact: Jacob Bernstein