Heritage Auctions Sues Rival Christie's for Widespread Theft, Copyright Infringement

Christie’s and Heritage Auctions are still at war. Over two years after Texas-based Heritage Auctions filed suit against New York-based Christie’s, accusing the world's largest fine arts auction house of poaching Matthew Rubinger, its key Hermès expert, and two other former-Heritage employees, Heritage has filed another suit against its rival. This time, Heritage asserts that Christie’s and its subsidiary, Collectrium, have engaged in unfair competition, conspiracy, trespassing, “harmful access by computer” (a Texas state law claim), copyright infringement, and violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

According to Heritage’s suit, which was filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas, “Christie’s sent an email to its customers inviting them to subscribe to an innovative and easy-to-use, searchable database with millions of auction results, which it called Collectrium Market Data Beta.” Per Heritage, the Collectrium database – which Christie’s claims “contains 7 million+ sales results” – was made possible as a result of the theft of an array of Heritage’s proprietary content, which it has “invested substantial time and more than $20 million over many years in developing.”

Heritage claims, “The only thing ‘exceptional’ about the content on Christie’s Collectrium site is the manner in which Christie’s compiled it, namely through the surreptitious and unlawful theft of huge volumes of Plaintiffs’ proprietary and copyrighted auction data, photographs and text from Plaintiffs’ servers. As of the filing of this Complaint approximately 2.7 million of the 11+ million listings on Defendants’ site were stolen from Plaintiffs.”

Further, Heritage claims that “Christie’s is using Collectrium to sell Plaintiffs’ original, copyrighted material as Christie’s own, and to divert customers from Plaintiffs, misleading collectors into thinking Christie’s is knowledgeable and experienced in auction categories in which Plaintiffs, in fact, are the clear marketplace leader.”

As for how – exactly – Christie’s perpetuated the alleged theft, Heritage states: “In July 2016, Heritage first determined a ‘spider’ was operating on its website. A ‘spider’ is a type of crawling, or scraping, software utilized by a third party which permeates a website and copies information off of all the pages of the website. ‘Spidering’ and other website crawling/scraping software allows a third party to obtain copies of all of the content off of the website at a superhuman speed, without actually viewing the web pages.”

Heritage further claims that it “traced the spider to an account under the name of Leanne Wise of Boiling Springs, SC. That account was set up from the same computer as another [Heritage Auctions] account in the name of David La Cross, Director of Product Development at Defendant Collectrium … The La Cross account accessed [Heritage’s website] using an IP address associated with Defendant Christie’s.”

The complaint goes on to state: “Over the course of nine days, the Wise account accessed the HA.com website over 186,000 times … Heritage had difficulty identifying the source of the activity, but eventually identified this behavior [which consisted of ‘stealing the copyrighted descriptions and images of items sold in past auctions’] as that of a spider and that it originated in the Wise account.”

And Heritage does not stop there. The company – the world’s third largest auction house – claims that Christie’s and Collectrium “willfully, intentionally, and knowingly agreed and conspired with each other to engage in the alleged wrongful conduct, and did the acts alleged pursuant to, and in furtherance of, that agreement and/or furthered the conspiracy by cooperating, encouraging, ratifying, or adopting the acts of the others.”

As a result of the aforementioned, Heritage is seeking a judgment preventing Defendants from any further theft of its content and requiring Christie’s to shut down its Collectrium service until all stolen content has been removed. Moreover, Heritage is seeking an array of monetary damages, including punitives, as it alleges that “Defendants’ intentional agreement to commit, and commission of, these wrongful acts was willful, malicious, oppressive, and in conscious disregard of Plaintiffs’ rights, and Plaintiffs are therefore entitled to an award of punitive damages to punish their wrongful conduct and deter future wrongful conduct.”

The auction houses’ most recent battle comes on the heels of a similarly heated legal war between fashion industry rivals, Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta, which are embroiled in litigation in connection with de la Renta’s co-creative director, Laura Kim. Herrera has alleged that in joining rival brand, de la Renta, in September as its chief creative, Kim is in violation of her non-compete agreement with Herrera and de la Renta is on the hook for tortiously interfering with the parties’ contract.  

* The case is HERITAGE CAPITAL CORPORATION, HERITAGE AUCTIONEERS & GALLERIES, INC., et al. v. CHRISTIE’S, INC. and COLLECTRIUM, INC., 3:16-cv-03404-N (N.D. Texas).