Photographer Annie Leibovitz, overexposed, is forced to sell her life's work

Famed celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz is broke. The woman who shot John Lennon on the same day that Mark David Chapman did, the one who has done portraits of everyone from Queen Elizabeth to a pregnant Demi Moore, has had to sign away the copyrights, negatives, and contracts for all her work to a high-class pawn shop. That includes everything she's going to shoot in the future. In return, she gets $15.5 million to pay her debts, given at an interest rate of between 6-to 16%.

Many press reports are tracing the photog's money woes to 2004, when her partner Susan Sontag died and left her more properties and debt than she could handle. Certainly, the added financial pressure put her over the edge, and you have to wonder how things might have been different had Sontag and Leibovitz been granted the property rights and benefits that heterosexual couples get.
By last fall, before the markets crashed, Leibovitz had already claimed $715,000 in debt. It got worse. At the same time, she was secretly negotiating to sell her rights.

But I can tell you that Leibovitz's problems date to way before that -- much of this stems from a home renovation gone sour. I live a few blocks away from Greenwich Village, where she bought a townhouse at the turn of the century. Her gut renovation of the building, which dates to before the Civil War, was so extreme (and, some say, careless) that it ended up damaging the townhouse next door, resulting in a $15 million lawsuit. To fix the problem, or so she thought, she bought that wrecked neighboring building.

For years, Annie Leibovitz's place was Greenwich Village's equivalent of Boo Radley's house. The now-conjoined townhouses (which were used to secure the loan) stood empty and shuttered, shored by bracing and looking for all the world like they would never be habitable. We'd walk by, on our way to The Spotted Pig or Delicia Brazil, and think for a moment that a flutter of the construction tarps meant there was a sign of life inside, only to hear nothing but hollowness.

People in the neighborhood scrutinized every brick coming out of the buildings and wondered how even Leibovitz, who has met and directed every important politician and household name of our age, could afford to maintain such a palatial money pit. Turns out she couldn't.

It's a sad tale, but fortunately, she's not out of the game yet. Apparently, the terms of the pawning of her rights say that if she pays back on time, the rights could potentially revert to her. And she's well on her way to that: A traveling exhibition of her most stunning portraits has been packing A-list museums around the world for the past few years, which ought to bring in plenty of bucks, and then there's that Dream Portraits contract with Disney and that contract with Vanity Fair that's reportedly worth $2 million a year. Just last week, she was spotted on a Malibu beach shooting Nicole Kidman and then-future Oscar winner Penelope Cruz as they geared up promotion for this fall's Nine. So the news isn't all negative.

The news is especially good for Art Capital, the firm that Leibovitz used to pawn her rights. In 2008, it loaned $80 million. This year, as portfolios plunge in value, it expects to dole out $120 million -- that's a 50% jump. And if the artists default, the company keeps the works, mostly of strong cultural importance, for resale when times are better.

Great artists often live in penury. But Leibovitz, certainly the greatest celebrity portraitist since Yousuf Karsh, has an advantage over a Van Gogh or a Seurat: People love her in her lifetime. She still has a chance to make it back into the black.

If Annie Leibovitz couldn't handle the stress of a home renovation, who can? Her cautionary tale will make you think twice about re-doing that kitchen, won't it?
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