ASAA, Denmark – On a stormy day last week, Tina Pedersen and Jens Poulsen, two Danish holidaymakers, posed for photos next to a statue of a mermaid. In some ways the image looked familiar: The mermaid, sitting by a harbor, rested the weight of her bare torso on one arm and delicately draped her pigtail over a rock. Yet Pedersen and Poulsen were not in Copenhagen; they were on their way to a beach holiday on the other side of Denmark.
“We heard on the radio that ‘The Little Mermaid’ estate demanded that it be destroyed,” Pedersen said. “So we thought we better come and check it out while we still can.”
The mermaid who has been watching over the harbor in the village of Asaa, in northern Denmark since 2016, is not an exact replica of the monument in Denmark’s capital. But for the heirs of Edvard Eriksen, the artist who sculpted the Copenhagen statue, the Asaa mermaid is too similar. They have started legal proceedings and are demanding not only financial compensation, but also that the statue in Asaa be taken down.
“When I first received the email, I had to laugh,” said Mikael Klitgaard, the mayor of Broenderslev, the municipality of which Asaa is a part. “I thought it was a joke.”
But the Eriksen estate will not be fooled. It has a long history of diligently protecting its licensing rights to the sculpture’s image, which represents a character from a Hans Christian Andersen story. Alice Eriksen, the artist’s granddaughter and overseer of the estate, was reached by phone and declined to comment. “The case is still ongoing,” she said.
Lawyers on both sides are still negotiating, but if the case goes to trial, the verdict will likely be about how closely the Asaa mermaid resembles the one that has sat in Copenhagen’s Langelinie harbor since 1913, when the brewing magnate and philanthropist Carl Jacobsen presented it to the city as a gift. That statue, which is one of Copenhagen’s most visited tourist attractions, is made of bronze and features a little mermaid resting her weight on her right arm as she neatly tucks her tail to the other side.
Carved from granite and weighing three tons, the Asaa mermaid is plumper and her features coarser. However, her attitude is the same.
“How else is she going to sit?” Klitgaard, the mayor, asked. ‘She’s a mermaid. You can’t put her in a chair.”
The Mermaid of Asaa was created by Palle Moerk, a local artist and stonemason who carves both headstones and figurative sculptures; among the latter, pigs, owls, and human hands making gestures (both obscene and not) are favorite themes. He had sculpted the mermaid four years before she was bought by a group of Asaa citizens and donated to the organization that runs the harbor to commemorate her 140th birthday.
In an interview, the artist said he hated the accusation that he copied Eriksen’s mermaid. “As an artist you take in all kinds of things – and of course I had seen pictures of the Langelinie mermaid,” explains Moerk. “But this was my own inspiration.”
After buying a large piece of granite, he kept it in his garden, not knowing what to cut out of it. But late one night the muse struck, and he quickly sketched the mermaid on paper that he kept by his bed for such moments. “Sometimes the stone speaks to you,” he said.
The thought that his mermaid could be obliterated worries him, he said. “I didn’t think we were destroying works of art in Denmark. That is something the Taliban are doing.”
Although the Eriksen estate is only demanding 37,000 Danish kroner, about $6,000 in compensation, both Moerk and Klitgaard said they felt the lawsuit was motivated by greed. The estate’s copyright expires in 2029 — 70 years after the artist’s death — and the mayor of Broenderslev said he thinks they’re “trying to get paid before then.” There are a lot of situations where they’ve been given money for this sort of thing.”
There are indeed. As early as 1937, Eriksen successfully sued a Danish craft company for making embroidery designs of the mermaid, whose body was modeled after his wife, Eline.
More recently, his heirs have sued the Danish newspaper Berlingske after it published images of the statue: a cartoon of the mermaid with the face of a zombie; the other, a photo of her wearing a coronavirus mask. In 2020, the Copenhagen court ruled that the newspaper had indeed infringed copyright and imposed a fine of 285,000 kronor, about $45,000, plus court costs.
Eriksen’s heirs also sued Bjoern Noergaard, an artist who incorporated the iconic likeness of “The Little Mermaid” into his own work, such as “The Genetically Modified Little Mermaid,” a statue that now stands a few hundred meters from the original. . Noergaard ran into trouble with the estate in 2008 after using a photo of “The Little Mermaid” in a collage. But what Eriksen’s heirs hadn’t recognized, he said on the phone, was that “artists have always referred to other artists.”
He pointed out that when Jacobsen commissioned the original sculpture, he instructed Eriksen how and where to position his mermaid, even specifying that he model her face on that of a dancer the industrialist had fallen in love with after seeing her. performing in a ballet version of Hans Christian Andersen’s story.
“So in this case, the artist took another artist’s motif,” Noergaard said, and “the client’s design.”
The village of Asaa may also draw some hope from the town of Greenville, Michigan. In 2009, the Eriksen Estate caught wind of a statue of the Little Mermaid that had stood there for 15 years on the banks of the Flat River, a tribute to the town’s Danish heritage. Through New York’s Artists Rights Society, it charged the city for “unauthorized reproduction” and filed a lawsuit for $3,700. It later dropped the claim for unknown reasons, though it’s possible that the Michigan mermaid’s stunned expression and mullet-like haircut — very different from her Copenhagen counterpart’s wispy braid — played a part.
With fewer than 1,200 residents, Asaa will struggle to pay any compensation, said port chairman Thomas Nymann. But what he most hopes to avoid is having to destroy the statue, he added.
“A lot of people in the city donated money for it, all the shops,” he said. “They will all be very upset if we lose it.”
Mayor Klitgaard, who said many of the citizens of his small community have expressed similar sentiments, also objected to the idea of paying compensation. “If ours was bronze, with the same height and the same face: OK. But they are very different. By the way,” he said with a wink. “Obviously she’s from around the corner. She looks like an Asaa girl.”