Lawsuit Raises Questions About Francesco Scavullo’s Archives and Foundation

A lawsuit filed by a disgruntled business partner of late fashion and celebrity photographer Francesco Scavullo has cast a spotlight on a charitable foundation that he established prior to his death in 2004, raising questions about the condition of Scavullo’s archive and the foundation’s fulfillment of its obligations under Scavullo’s will. Court papers and IRS filings suggest the foundation–which was supposed to keep Scavullo’s legacy alive–has gone dormant.

Philadelphia-based Motion Picture Group, a marketing group established before Scavullo’s death to help the photographer promote and license his archives, has sued the New York-based Francesco Scavullo Foundation for breach of oral contract in federal court in Philadelphia. MPG is seeking more than $150,000 in compensation for marketing efforts that it says it undertook on behalf of the foundation under informal agreements prior to an acrimonious split earlier this year.

MPG, which had a written contract with Scavullo to provide marketing services before his death, continued to work with the Scavullo Foundation afterwards, but without a written agreement. MPG says it has tried to formalize its agreements with the foundation for several years, but the foundation allegedly refused to make good on promises to sign a written contract, according to the MPG’s lawsuit. The foundation broke off communications after MPG’s attorney sent a threatening letter on March 6.

The letter says that MPG had been “trying in good faith for six years” to negotiate a license agreement with the foundation to market the Scavullo photographs. “[MPG] has expended a substantial amount of money to promote Scavullo’s works,” the letter says, noting that MPG made “a few small sales.”

The letter went on to accuse the foundation of “utter failure to act in its fiduciary capacity with regards to the bequest of Mr. Scavullo.” Specifically, it claims the foundation has failed to catalogue Scavullo’s work; failed to take necessary steps to preserve his archive–which MPG claims is continuing to deteriorate; and failed to take steps to promote Scavullo’s work, as it was charged to do in the photographer’s will.

Attached to the letter was a proposed contract and a threat: “The window of opportunity to reach an amicable resolution…is closing,” the letter said. MPG gave the foundation ten days to respond, or it would “move forward with alternative options,” the letter concluded.

Rocco Licalso, executive director of the Francesco Scavullo Foundation, expressed surprise that MPG has filed the lawsuit when PDN contacted him about it. He declined to answer questions, saying he needed to read MPG’s claim and talk to the foundation’s lawyer first.

Then he said, “Our attorney responded to their letter that this has no merit. We’ve got a major project in front of us to get Francesco’s legacy out there in the market again. And frankly, MPG did not do a good job, in the five years–seven years–they’ve been attached to it. It’s that simple. With that disappointment, we are looking forward to moving ahead in a different direction.”

As a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation, the foundation’s annual tax returns are a matter of public record. Copies of those forms, which are attached as exhibits to the lawsuit, show no assets, no income, and no expenditures during the past two years.

Millbrook, New York gallerist Jeanne Chisholm, who sells Scavullo’s prints for his estate and foundation, told PDN that neither MPG nor the Scavullo Foundation have been returning her calls about requests she receives for permission to publish images from Scavullo’s archive. “I suspected something was awry,” she says. “But I do not know what’s going on between the big wigs.”

Also attached to the lawsuit is a copy of Scavullo’s will, which calls for a 50/50 division of his photographic archive after his death for two beneficiaries. One beneficiary is the foundation itself, which was charged in the will with marketing the work and donating the proceeds to unspecified individuals and institutions that serve “underprivileged children or people living with AIDS.” The other beneficiary is Sean M. Byrnes, Scavullo’s partner.

According to MPG’s March 6 letter to the foundation, Byrnes “is very willing to enter into a license agreement with [MPG.]”

A woman who answered the phone at Byrnes’s residence identified herself as his sister, and said that he was not granting interviews to the media.

Licalso also did not respond to requests for a follow-up interview about MPG’s claim, or the allegations that the trustees of the Francesco Scavullo Foundation are failing to meet their fiduciary duties under the terms of Scavullo’s will.

MPG founder Jay Arnold declined to be interviewed for this story.

In addition to his role at MPG, Arnold is president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Impax Marketing Group. According the MPG’s lawsuit, Arnold met Scavullo “in the 1980s when they both attended several photo shoots with a local model.”

They were reintroduced in the late 1990s, and worked together to create and market a reality TV show called “Cover Model Challenge.” That led to discussions about publishing and licensing Scavullo’s photographs. Arnold formed MPG, which entered into a marketing agreement with Scavullo in 2003, less than a year before the photographer’s death.

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