His crowd-pleasing sculptures have been displayed everywhere from California to China to Thailand, his second home. A 1993 International Herald Tribune review dubbed Woytuk “the greatest animal sculptor of the Western world in the closing years of the 20th century,” praise that he has called “embarrassing,” but still tops his marketing materials.
Woytuk is responsible for the big bronze bulls, crows and elephants at the Ghost Ranch campus on Old Taos Highway; similar full-size pieces of his reportedly sell for $250,000. Woytuk also made the two big geese and the twin ravens at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
“He is an artist of international reputation and we are grateful for his generosity in lending us these pieces,” Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Keith Toler said in a 2008 press release.
That reputation may be tarnished by an ongoing legal dispute. Woytuk’s wife and business partner, Copper Tritscheller, claims in court filings that the well-known sculptor has been anything but generous. Last October, Tritscheller filed for divorce. On May 18, she filed a civil lawsuit in Santa Fe’s 1st Judicial District Court.
The civil case alleges Woytuk has ditched his wife to go live it up in Thailand, where he’s bought expensive meals, luxury cars and a new house with a swimming pool—all with money from the company he jointly owns with his wife. Tritscheller, also an animal sculptor, claims her husband has cut off her sole source of income by treating their business as his personal piggy bank and colluding with art brokers and gallery owners to deprive her of her fair share of sales proceeds.
For instance, she claims that Woytuk failed to account for sculpture sales in Shanghai worth at least $1 million.
And, in news that may cause concern to art buyers, her lawsuit reveals that Woytuk has contested the authenticity of sculptures that have been sold under his name.
Neither party wishes to speak publicly. Emailed by SFR, Woytuk mistakenly replied with a message intended for his lawyer. “What is this about? What should I do?” Woytuk writes. “And where did this guy get my email address?”
Woytuk’s lawyer in Santa Fe, Patricia Turner, has no comment. “We prefer to do our stuff in court,” she says. On April 30, a previous attorney retained by Woytuk claimed the artist could not attend a deposition in his divorce case because he “is without sufficient funds to travel to New Mexico.”
Citing her privacy, Tritscheller also declines to speak. “I would really prefer that this didn’t go anywhere,” she says.
Marital issues aside, one of Santa Fe’s most successful artists stands accused of fraud and, in the words of Tritscheller’s attorney, Randolph Felker, conduct “inexcusable in the eyes of society and the law.”
Tritscheller’s lawsuit says she and Woytuk went into business together in 2002, then married in 2004. She claims to have invested $194,000 in their business partnership before it reincorporated as Peter Woytuk Sculpture, Inc. Tritscheller’s duties with PWSI were primarily administrative, while Woytuk focused on his art. However, the lawsuit says, they were to share the profits equally.
The problems allegedly began in May 2007 when Woytuk transferred $150,000—most of PWSI’s cash—into his own Thai bank account, the lawsuit claims. Though he returned $25,000 to PWSI after Tritscheller protested, she claims the business was left without money to operate, resulting in bounced checks. PWSI’s account was drained again last September, the lawsuit claims, a few days before Tritscheller filed for divorce.
The civil suit paints a picture of Woytuk’s mounting personal expenses in Thailand, a country where one can live comfortably on a few dollars a day, or extravagantly on a few hundred.
Some of the company’s money paid for Woytuk’s “woman traveling companion,” the lawsuit claims; other charges included dinners costing more than $1,000, and travel and entertainment for himself, family and friends.
Tritscheller claims Woytuk used company funds to buy himself an $80,000 (uninsured) BMW, which he wrecked while “intoxicated,” according to the lawsuit.
PWSI owns a stake in Asia Fine Art in Ayutthaya, Thailand, which bills itself as “among the most highly regarded [bronze] foundries in the world.” The lawsuit claims Woytuk bought land there “for the construction of the personal residence and swimming pool…[as well as] a new business for him and his female companion in Thailand.”
In January 2009, the lawsuit claims, Woytuk told Tritscheller he needed money to hire a Thai lawyer; he told her Asia Fine Art had “screwed” PWSI by “embezzling.” But after visiting Thailand recently, Tritscheller claims she learned that there was no legal dispute.
This February, the lawsuit alleges, Woytuk “removed sculptures, work in progress, supplies, records, tools, equipment, cameras, imaging equipment” and other PWSI property from the company’s studio in an industrial park near Camino Entrada in Santa Fe. SFR visited the studio, which is locked and vacant except for piles of junk in the yard.
Woytuk and Tritscheller’s works remain on sale at The Owings Gallery, which recently moved to the old Video Library location on Marcy Street.
The smallest Woytuk pieces there—teacup-sized ravens—carry price tags of $675. Slightly larger sculptures retail for $5,500. Tritscheller’s lawsuit says PWSI generally claims 60 percent from a commission sale.
Gallery owner Nathaniel Owings tells SFR he was unaware of Tritscheller’s lawsuit, which says Woytuk made off with a sculpture partly owned by Owings.
“It may be jointly owned but, if it’s sold, I’ll get my third,” Owings says. “It’s business.”
Other contested Woytuk pieces are at the Morrison Gallery in Kent, Conn., and the Ma(i)sonry Gallery in Napa Valley, Calif. Tritscheller’s lawsuit reveals that Woytuk has denied authorship of four sculptures, and had “falsely claimed those works were of inferior quality [and] did not in any way represent his artistic vision.” Woytuk even hired an attorney to notify the buyers that the sculptures “had been falsely attributed to Woytuk” and should be shipped to the attorney, Tritscheller claims.
The disputed sculptures are listed in an online Ma(i)sonry catalogue. One, “Tiny Crow on Fiddleheads,” has been sold. The others are priced between $800 and $1,500.
Woytuk’s attorney has until June 23 to file a response to Tritscheller’s civil complaint. In the meantime, both parties must abide by an order by District Judge Daniel Sanchez, which provides for certain expenditures by both parties, as well as the salaries of a contract laborer in Santa Fe and a studio cleaning person in Thailand—and requiring proper accounting of all art sales.