Forged Fridays: Dürer, The First Intellectual Property Case & Pornographic Printers


Albrecht Dürer was a polymath. Born on the 28th May, 1471, in Nuremberg, over the course of his career he demonstrated skill as a painter, a printmaker and a writer. At a young age he apprenticed as a goldsmith, and an engraver, and throughout his life he worked to learn and perfect as many skills as possible. He was also concerned with his sense of time and mortality, and over the course of his life he documented its passage numerous times, though perhaps most famously in work Self-Portrait at 28, 1500.

Durer Self-Portrait at 28, 1500
Dürer’s Self-Portrait at 28, 1500.


The work is iconic, which is perhaps an ironic word choice, as Dürer’s frontal pose was designed to engage directly in the visual vocabulary of medieval icons and saints who were always depicted head on. Typically portraits made by Dürer’s contemporaries used subjects posed either in profile or a three-quarters turn. Dürer’s self-portrait was revolutionary, and even his decision to sign the work with a stylized monogram is notable (its influence could even be linked to later painters like Whistler who adopted a “butterfly” style signature). The monogram is perhaps the most important element of the portrait in the context of this particular article, as Dürer employed it throughout his work in a fashion, which is not dissimilar to the contemporary “™” symbol.

Dürer's Signature
Dürer’s Signature.


In 1506, Dürer had received a print from one of his collectors from his incredibly popular Life of the Virgin Series, which he had made in 1502. The first publishing run of the series was an instant success, and had sold out across Europe. By the time Dürer had created his Self Portrait at 28 in 1500 he was already a celebrity across Europe, and he had had to deal with several printers making knock-offs of his work or adding his monogram to prints to increase their value. Dürer is perhaps one of the first artists to capitalize upon the value of his own name, and when he received the questionable print from his collector he was incensed. The print was not simply a poor reproduction but the work of a master printer designed to be almost indiscernible from the original, and to add insult to injury it bore a perfect copy of his monogram.

Dürer and Raimondi fake
Image left: Dürer print from Life of the Virgin Series, 1502. Image right: Raimondi’s forgery of the same work.


After careful investigation Dürer discovered that the offending print was made by the Dal Jesus family, and that the artist behind them was the rather unsavory Marcantonio Raimondi. Raimondi was an excellent draughtsman and would later become famous for his work on I Modi (“The Positions”), which was an illustrated pornographic manual of sexual positions. That particular work would be published in 1526, and cause such an uproar that it would result in Raimondi’s imprisonment by Pope Clement VII. (Amusingly, some contemporary notes on the text actually employ the term “wet T-shirt effect” in reference to plate 17).

I Modi plate, Bachus et Ariane, 1526
A plate from Raimondi’s I Modi, Bachus et Ariane, 1526


Raimondi purchased the original prints from Dürer’s Life of the Virgin series in 1506, and set about carefully copying them before delivering woodcuts to the Dal Jesus family, who then in turn began a run of the prints, and sold them as originals. Raimondi was neither so humble nor so concerned with discretion that he did not add his own alterations to the plates, and Dürer only identified the prints as fakes after he noticed Raimondi’s own monogram hidden in the designs, and tributes to the Dal Jesus family. The difficulty Dürer had in confirming that the prints were fake is a testament to the skill of Raimondi, however, Dürer believed that the series represented the ultimate threat to his name and responded by bringing a lawsuit against the Dal Jesus family and Raimondi.

Raimondi's stylized monogram
Raimondi’s stylized monogram, visible bottom left.


The suit is the first recorded instance of Intellectual Property litigation in history. After an extended trial the courts eventually ruled that Raimondi’s only violation was to include Dürer’s iconic monogram and that the Dal Jesus family’s only crime was to pass the copies off as originals. The final ruling directed Raimondi to remove Dürer’s monogram, and the Dal Jesus family to simply state the prints were copies and not originals. Dürer was told that he should be flattered that his work was so highly prized that it drove others to copy it. Dürer was furious.

In light of the case, when his series was republished in 1511, Dürer chose to add a fiery notice to the edition which read:

Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains! Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximilian that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.

Albrecht Dürer


Colophon from 1511
Colophon from 1511.


It would do little to dissuade forgers, as by now the trade in fake and forged Dürers was far too lucrative for a simple statement to have much effect. But it marks the birth of modern conceptions of intellectual property, artistic licence, and trademarking.

Featured Image: Albrecht Dürer’s first self-portrait at the age of 13, silverpoint. Image Source: Wikipedia.