Artists sue over La Contessa arson

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By Steven T. Jones

Almost three years after La Contessa – an authentic Spanish galleon built on a bus for Burning Man by members of the Extra Action Marching Band – was deliberately burned to the ground by Nevada rancher Mike Stewart, the artists have filed a civil lawsuit seeking more than $900,000 in damages.
A 2007 Guardian cover story told the tale of this unique artwork, its colorful builders, and the man who admitted torching it. Stewart and his attorney claimed he had a right to destroy La Contessa because it had been left on property he purchased. “I was forced to clean it up,” Stewart told Washoe County Sheriff’s Deputy Tracy Bloom.
But the suit is based the federal Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which makes it illegal to destroy artwork even if it is no longer in the artist’s possession. “It’s right on point with the facts of this case,” attorney Paul Quade told the Guardian.
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Stewart is a major landowner in the region around Gerlach, where Burning Man has been held since 1989 after it moved from San Francisco’s Baker Beach, and he has a history of battling both the organization and its attendees. Although Bloom considered the fire arson, he opted not to recommend criminal charges because he thought Steward lacked criminal intent. As he told us at the time, "Chances are this is something they will pursue civilly."