This Dead Artist’s Family Is Using His Name & Style To Sell AI Art 
4 mins read

This Dead Artist’s Family Is Using His Name & Style To Sell AI Art 

A famous artist who died in 2019 is now seeing his artworks being fed to generative AI, with the results being sold online in association with his name. The sellers are his own family members, who say it is “legal” and “ethical”.

Leonid Afremov, a Belarus-born artist, died six years ago aged 64. Afremov was an Impressionist artist known for vivid, colourful paintings mostly depicting nature. He mostly created his works with oil on canvas and a palette knife.

Screengrab from afremov.com. May 8, 2024.

Yesterday, Jon Neimeister, who’s the lead artist for Blizzard’s Hearthstone video game, discovered that family members running Afremov’s official website have been selling AI-generated artwork that appears to be inspired by Afremov’s originals.

For example, an artwork titled ‘Frog With Butterfly Wings’ where the artwork’s subject is labelled as “AI generated” is selling for US$99 (AU$149). A closer look at the piece shows the frog’s legs are unevenly drawn on the lily pad, and the water reflection of the frog’s wings is missing.

While clarifying that the piece is AI-generated, the artwork’s description promises: “This is a real 100% UNIQUE hand-painted ONE-OF-A-KIND ORIGINAL OIL PAINTING ON CANVAS by Afremov Gallery (not a print, mixed-media or recreation art).” 

The website even claims that ‘Frog With Butterfly Wings’ is “signed on the front and the back”, and “comes with a certificate of authenticity, personally signed by the artist.”

Screengrab from afremov.com. May 8, 2024.

Next, an artwork titled ‘Owls Flying in a Starry Night’ is also selling for US$99 (AU$149). Again, take a closer look and you’ll find mistakes that a human artist is unlikely to make, such as an owl’s claw not perched on a branch.

Similar to the frog ‘painting’ above, ‘Owls Flying in a Starry Night’ is AI-generated and comes with authenticity guarantees.

Screengrab from afremov.com. May 8, 2024.

AI ‘art’ by a deceased artist

On Afremov’s website, legitimate, hand-painted pieces by the artist himself are still up for sale, along with AI art based on Afremov’s style. The website states:

The Afremov family owns the trademark “Leonid Afremov” and all copyrights to the paintings. The family runs the website afremov.com and took charge of Afremov Studio. They also operate all the official social media of the artist.

In response to questions from The Chainsaw, Leonid Afremov’s son, David Afremov, reiterated the family’s ownership of the late artist’s intellectual property (IP): “The trademark of Leonid Afremov belongs to the family and we have full legal rights to sell, copy, [and] recreate paintings of Leonid Afremov.”

Afremov told us they “have an art gallery of 20 artists, and yes some of them [take] inspiration from AI images. They paint new and unique artwork based on the image, and these paintings are sold under their name, not Leonid Afremov’s [name].”

David Afremov says his father gave consent to the family to use his work for generative AI art. “Leonid and I were working on developing the AI paintings that will create new paintings in his style,” he told The Chainsaw.

Feeding a late artist’s work into AI

In the entertainment industry, it’s standard practice for a deceased artist’s family to own the artist’s likeness and IP rights after they’ve passed. Think of the estates of legendary artists like Michael Jackson and Tupac Shakur, and The Lord of The Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien.

This allows the artist’s family to consent (or not) to the artist’s work being modified, or — in this case — manipulated by AI technology. For example, last year the family of deceased Cyberpunk 2077 voice actor Miłogost Reczek granted consent to the video game’s developers to use his voice in a new instalment. Reczek’s family received monetary compensation in return.

“I think we can do it. I think it is absolutely legal and ethical,” David Afremov said in response to criticism about his current business model in a recent Facebook Live titled AI Paintings Are Good Or Bad?

“You think it’s not good for his legacy. I think it’s good, I think it’s even better because art never dies. What my artists are doing is simple: they are using AI to get inspiration, and using Photoshop to [make] it look more beautiful and nice. So, in my opinion, it is an original. It is good quality and unique.”

Main image: afremov.com/Facebook (Leonid Afremov)