February 2, 2023

ASAA, Denmark – On a stormy day last week, Tina Pedersen and Jens Poulsen, two Danish vacationers, posed for photos next to a statue of a mermaid. In a way, the sculpture looked familiar: Located in a harbor, the mermaid propped the weight of her bare torso on one arm and draped her fishtail delicately over a rock. Pedersen and Poulsen were not in Copenhagen, however; they were on their way to a beach holiday on the other side of Denmark.

“We heard on the radio that The Little Mermaid’s property was calling for the property to be demolished,” Pedersen said. “So we thought we’d better take a look while we still can.”

The mermaid, who has been watching over the harbor in the village of Asaa in northern Denmark since 2016, is not an exact replica of the symbol of the Danish capital. But for the heirs of Edvard Eriksen, the artist who created the Copenhagen statue, the Asaa mermaid bears too much resemblance. You have initiated a lawsuit demanding not only financial compensation, but also the demolition of the sculpture in Asaa.

“When I first got the email, I laughed,” said Mikael Klitgaard, the mayor of Broenderslev, the municipality that Asaa is a part of. “I thought it was a joke.”

But the Eriksen property is no fun. It has a long history of zealous protection of its licensing rights to the image of the sculpture depicting a character from a Hans Christian Andersen story. Reached by phone, Alice Eriksen, the artist’s granddaughter and supervisor of the estate, declined to comment. “The case is on,” she said.

Lawyers on both sides are still negotiating, but when the case comes to court, the verdict will likely be based on how much the Asaa mermaid resembles the one who has been sitting in the port of Langelinie in Copenhagen since 1913, when brewing magnate and philanthropist Carl Jacobsen presented it as a gift to the city. One of Copenhagen’s most visited tourist attractions, this sculpture is made of bronze and depicts a tiny mermaid resting her weight on her right arm while she neatly lays her tail on the other side.

Carved from granite and weighing three tons, the Asaa mermaid is plumper and her facial features coarser. However, their attitude is the same.

“How else should it sit?” Asked Klitgaard, the mayor. “She is a mermaid. You can’t put her on a chair. “

The Asaa mermaid was created by Palle Moerk, a local artist and stonemason who carves both tombstones and figurative sculptures; among the latter, pigs, owls, and human hands making gestures (both obscene and non-obscene) are preferred subjects. He had modeled the mermaid for four years before it was bought by a group of Asaa residents and donated to the organization that runs the port to commemorate its 140th anniversary.

In an interview, the artist said he rejects the charge that he copied Eriksen’s mermaid. “As an artist, you record all kinds of things – and of course I had seen pictures of the Langelinie mermaid,” explains Moerk. “But that was my own inspiration.”

After buying a large piece of granite, he kept it in his garden and didn’t know what to carve out of it. But one night the muse struck and he quickly sketched the mermaid on paper that he kept next to his bed for moments like this. “Sometimes the stone speaks to you,” he said.

The thought that his mermaid might be wiped out worries him, he said. “I didn’t think we were destroying works of art in Denmark. That’s something the Taliban are doing. “

Although the Eriksen estate is only asking for 37,000 Danish kroner, about $ 6,000 in compensation, both Moerk and Klitgaard said they felt the lawsuit was motivated by greed. The estate’s copyright will expire in 2029 – 70 years after the artist’s death – and the Mayor of Broenderslev said he believed they “could try to get paid by then. There are many situations in which they have received money for something like this. “

There actually are. As early as 1937, Eriksen successfully sued a Danish craft business for the production of needle-point patterns of the mermaid, whose body was modeled on his wife Eline.

More recently, his heirs sued the Danish newspaper Berlingske after they published pictures of the statue: one a caricature of the mermaid with the face of a zombie; the other, a photo of her wearing a coronavirus mask. In 2020, the Copenhagen City Court found that the newspaper had indeed infringed copyright law and fined 285,000 kroner, about $ 45,000, plus court costs.

The Eriksen heirs also sued Bjoern Noergaard, an artist who incorporated the iconic image of the “Little Mermaid” into his own work, such as “The Genetically Modified Little Mermaid”, a statue that now stands a few hundred meters from the original . Noergaard ran into trouble with the property in 2008 after using a photo of “The Little Mermaid” in a collage. What Eriksen’s heirs did not realize, however, he said on the phone, was that “artists always referred to other artists”.

He pointed out that when Jacobsen commissioned the original sculpture, Jacobsen instructed Eriksen how and where to position his mermaid, and even specified that he had modeled her face on that of a dancer the industrialist had fallen in love with, after seeing her in a ballet version of the story by Hans Christian Andersen.

“In this case, the artist took over the motif from another artist,” says Noergaard, and “the design from the customer”.

The village of Asaa could also take some hope from the city of Greenville, Michigan. In 2009, the Eriksen estate caught wind of a small mermaid statue that had perched on the banks of the Flat River for 15 years, a tribute to the city’s Danish heritage. Through the Artists Rights Society in New York, she charged the city with “unauthorized copying” and sued $ 3,700. It later dropped the claim for reasons unknown, though it is possible that the Michigan mermaid’s speechless expression and mullet-like hairstyle – very unlike the delicate braid of her Copenhagen counterpart – played a role.

With fewer than 1,200 inhabitants, Asaa will find it difficult to pay compensation, said port manager Thomas Nymann. However, what he wants to avoid most is the destruction of the sculpture, he added.

“Lots of people in town donated money to all of the businesses,” he said. “They’ll all be very upset if we lose it.”

Mayor Klitgaard, who said many citizens of his small community had expressed similar views, also declined to pay compensation. “If our bronze were the same size and face: OK. But they are very different. Besides, ”he said with a wink. “It is clear that it is local. She looks like an Asaa girl. “