Annie Leibovitz pawns life’s work for cash

By Carol Eisenberg

March 2, 2009 at 1:37pm

She is the world’s most famous celebrity photographer, whose trademark images include the naked and very pregnant Demi Moore for Vanity Fair, John Lennon wrapped fetal-style around his wife, Yoko Ono, for Rolling Stone, and a bare-armed First Lady Michelle Obama for Vogue.

Now Annie Leibovitz, 59, has used those iconic images - and indeed, every one she has ever taken or will take in the future - as collateral for two loans totalling $15.5 million from Art Capital Group to help her dig out from massive debt related, among other things, to a botched renovation project to several historic properties she owns in Greenwich Village.

Besides the rights to all her photographs, Leibovitz also put up for collateral several properties, including the Village townhouses and a country house in upstate Rhinebeck, according to the New York Times.

“One of the world’s most successful photographers essentially pawned every snap of the shutter she had made or will make until the loans are paid off,” wrote the Times.

The transaction was underwritten by Art Capital, a New York-based company which lends money to artists and art owners using their art as collateral, and which has apparently seen a huge jump in business since the plunge in the stock market and the declining equity in homes that owners might otherwise have borrow edagainst.

Leibovitz has declined to talk about her financial situation. But her problems apparently began with a 2002 gut renovation of a historic Greek Revival townhouse she bought in the West Village, which badly damaged the foundations of the building next door, resulting in a $15 million lawsuit. To fix the problem, or so she thought at the time, she bought the building.

By all accounts, the renovations have been a continuing money pit both because of the severe structural problems, as well as protests and lobbying by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation to preserve the buildings’ design. More recently, the photographer was hit by lawsuits from a lighting company and a stylist she had hired for a photo shoot, who sued last year over unpaid bills totaling more than $778,000.

Robert Pledge, the founder of Contact Press Images, which represents Leibovitz, said she had faced other stresses in the last eight years, including runaway expenses at her Chelsea studio, which she has since closed; the deaths of her lover, noted writer Susan Sontag, as well as of her parents; and the births of several children.

In particular, the fact that Sontag bequeathed Leibovitz property after she died resulted in huge inheritance taxes because the couple was unmarried, creating additional financial pressures.

And with her three children all young, the need to resolve her financial problems loomed large. Leibovitz’ first child, Sarah Cameron Leibovitz. was born in October, 2001, when the photographer was 51 years old. Her twins, Susan and Samuelle, were born to a surrogate mother in May 2005.

Art lenders like Art Capital typically lend up to 40 percent of what they appraise the artworks to be worth, and usually take possession of the works. “It’s very discreet,” said Ian Peck, a co-owner of Art Capital, housed in the former Sotheby’s building on Madison Avenue.

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