Kobe Bryant Autographs: Art of the Game Fires Back at Panini Lawsuit

If anyone is to blame for a possible contract violation over Kobe Bryant’s autograph, it’s…Kobe Bryant.  So say court papers filed last month by Art of the Game, a southern California based company with kiosks at pro sports venues there including Staples Center.

Panini signed Kobe Bryant cardThe motion for sanctions came in response to a lawsuit that Panini filed this spring, claiming Art of the Game had violated the trading card maker’s exclusive deal as distributor of signed Kobe Bryant autographs by selling non-licensed and non-genuine signed memorabilia.

Art of the Game is now seeking unspecified damages from Panini in U.S. District Court, saying the suit has caused them “irreparable damage and harm” to the company and the “personal and professional reputations” of its owners, Harlan Werner, Daniel Crosby and Jerald Gibbs.

That original suit was filed after a Panini representative paid an undercover visit to the Art of the Game shop at Staples Center this season and saw several signed Bryant items including artwork, posters and photos for sale.

Panini’s 66-page filing made several claims, including trademark infringement, false advertising and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage. The company had signed Bryant to an autograph contract in September of 2009.

However, Art of the Game, a subsidiary of Sports Placement Services, which represents sports artists and has had memorabilia deals with Joe Namath, Muhammad Ali and Sandy Koufax, says not only did Bryant put his autograph on the items they were selling, he signed affidavits to prove it.  They also say their relationship with Bryant pre-dates the deal he made with Panini.

Art of the Game says Bryant toured Art of the Game’s kiosk in November of 2006 and  commissioned a $14,000 painting of his wife and mother from artist Stephen Holland, a Sports Placement Services client.  The court papers originally obtained by Radar Online also state that in 2007, Bryant signed 100 Holland-created lithographs of himself for Art of the Game to sell and that between May of 2009 and January of this year, he signed 65 more items, including 25 dual-signed photso of himself and Blake Griffin, 23 lithos created by noted artist Opie Otterstad and seven Black Mamba movie posters.

They also claim that even after agreeing to the arrangement with Panini, Bryant never mentioned having an exclusive contract that would have prevented someone else from selling autographs.

Bryant’s sworn statements in Panini’s original suit contain carefully worded declarations indicating he wasn’t aware he was signing autographs specifically for Art of the Game.  According to the motion for sanctions filed by attorneys for Werner, Crosby and Gibbs, Bryant signed the items in the presence of “”long time friend and business associate” Andrew Bennett.  No mention of Art of the Game is included in the certificates of authenticity signed by Bryant.

“Panini’s real claims, if any, lie against licensor Bryant for breach of his alleged exclusive agreement with Panini”, Art of the Game attorneys state in their 25-page filing.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for September 11.