Denmark now has two Little Mermaids. The famous one is suing.

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Denmark now has two Little Mermaids. The famous one is suing.
Tourist pose for photos at the granite mermaid in Asaa, Denmark, on Aug. 12, 2021. The heirs of the artist behind a Copenhagen landmark want a similar statue in Asaa torn down. And they want compensation, too. Carsten Snejbjerg/The New York Times.

by Lisa Abend

ASAA (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On a blustery day last week, Tina Pedersen and Jens Poulsen, two Danish vacationers, posed for pictures beside a statue of a mermaid. In some ways, the sculpture seemed familiar: Perched by a harbor, the mermaid rested the weight of her bare torso on one arm, and draped her piscine tail delicately over a rock. Yet Pedersen and Poulsen were not in Copenhagen; they were on their way to a beach vacation on the other side of Denmark.

“We heard on the radio that the estate of ‘The Little Mermaid’ was demanding that this one be destroyed,” said Pedersen. “So we thought we better come see it while we still could.”

The mermaid that has watched over the harbor in the village of Asaa, in the north of Denmark, since 2016 is not an exact replica of the landmark in Denmark’s capital. But for the heirs of Edvard Eriksen, the artist who sculpted the Copenhagen statue, the Asaa mermaid bears too close a resemblance. They have initiated legal proceedings, demanding not just financial compensation, but that the sculpture in Asaa be torn down as well.

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

But the Eriksen estate is not fooling around. It has a long history of zealously protecting its licensing rights to the image of the sculpture, which represents a character from a Hans Christian Andersen story. Reached by phone, Alice Eriksen, the artist’s granddaughter and overseer of the estate, declined to comment. “The case is ongoing,” she said.

Lawyers on both sides are still negotiating, but if the case goes to court, the ruling will likely turn on how closely the Asaa mermaid resembles the one that has sat in Langelinie harbor in Copenhagen since 1913, when brewing magnate and philanthropist Carl Jacobsen presented it to the city as a gift. That sculpture, which is one of Copenhagen’s most visited tourist attractions, is made of bronze, and features a diminutive mermaid who rests her weight on her right arm while tucking her tail neatly to the other side.

Carved from granite and weighing 3 tons, the Asaa mermaid is plumper, and her facial features coarser. Her posture, however, is the same.

“How else is she going to sit?” asked Klitgaard. “She’s a mermaid. You can’t put her in a chair.”

The Asaa mermaid was created by Palle Moerk, a local artist and stonemason who carves both gravestones and figurative sculptures; among the latter, pigs, owls and human hands making gestures (both obscene and not) are favored themes. He had sculpted the mermaid four years before she was purchased by a group of Asaa citizens and donated to the organization that runs the harbor to commemorate its 140th anniversary.

In an interview, the artist said he resented the accusation that he copied the mermaid from Eriksen. “As an artist, you take in all kinds of things — and of course, I had seen pictures of the Langelinie mermaid,” Moerk explained. “But this was my own inspiration.”

Having purchased a large piece of granite, he had kept it in his yard, uncertain of what to carve from it. But late one night the muse hit, and he quickly sketched the mermaid on paper he kept by his bed for just such moments. “Sometimes the stone speaks to you,” he said.

The thought that his mermaid may be obliterated troubles him, he said. “I didn’t think we destroyed art works in Denmark. That’s something the Taliban do.”

Although the Eriksen estate is seeking only 37,000 Danish crowns, about $6,000 in compensation, both Moerk and Klitgaard said they felt the suit was motivated by greed. The estate’s copyright will expire in 2029 — 70 years after the death of the artist — and the Broenderslev mayor said he thinks they may be “trying to get paid before then. There are a lot of situations where they’ve gotten money for this kind of thing.”

There are indeed. As early as 1937, Eriksen successfully sued a Danish handicraft company for producing needlepoint patterns of the mermaid, whose body was modeled on his wife, Eline.

More recently, his heirs sued the Danish newspaper Berlingske after it published images of the statue: one a cartoon of the mermaid with the face of a zombie; the other, a photograph that depicted her wearing a coronavirus mask. In 2020, the Copenhagen City Court found that the newspaper had indeed violated copyright, and imposed a fine of 285,000 crowns, about $45,000, plus court costs.

The Eriksen heirs also sued Bjoern Noergaard, an artist who has incorporated “The Little Mermaid’s” iconic likeness into his own work, such as “The Genetically Modified Little Mermaid,” a statue that now stands a few hundred meters from the original. Noergaard got into trouble with the estate in 2008, after he used a photograph of “The Little Mermaid” in a collage. But what Eriksen’s heirs had failed to recognize, he said by phone, was that “artists have always referenced other artists.”

He pointed out that when Jacobsen commissioned the original sculpture, he instructed Eriksen on how and where to position his mermaid, and even specified that he model her face on that of a dancer with whom the industrialist had become infatuated after seeing her perform in a ballet version of Andersen’s story.

“So, in this case the artist took the motif from another artist,” Noergaard said, and “the design from the customer.”

He won the case.

The village of Asaa may also take some hope from the town of Greenville, Michigan. In 2009, the Eriksen estate got wind of a Little Mermaid statue that had perched there on the banks of the Flat River for 15 years, a tribute to the town’s Danish heritage. Through the Artists Rights Society in New York, it charged the town for “unauthorized reproduction” and sued for $3,700. It later dropped the claim for unknown reasons, though it is possible that the Michigan mermaid’s dumbstruck expression and mullet-esque hairstyle — very different from her Copenhagen counterpart’s wispy braid — played a role.

With fewer than 1,200 inhabitants, Asaa will have a hard time paying any damages, the harbor’s chairman, Thomas Nymann, said. But what he most hopes to avoid is having to destroy the sculpture, he added.

“A lot of people in town donated money for it, all the shops,” he said. “They will all be very upset if we lose it.”

Klitgaard, who said that many of his small community’s citizens have expressed similar sentiments, also objected to the idea of paying compensation. “If ours was bronze, with the same height and face: OK. But they are quite different. Besides,” he said with a wink, “it’s clear she’s local. She looks just like an Asaa girl.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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