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Court: Kevin Costner may need to pay off South Dakota sculptor

By: - August 3, 2023 2:00 pm
Kevin Costner holds an American flag in a scene from the 1990 film "Dances With Wolves," which was filmed in South Dakota. (Tig Productions/Getty Images)

Kevin Costner holds an American flag in a scene from the 1990 film “Dances With Wolves,” which was filmed in South Dakota. (Tig Productions/Getty Images)

Actor Kevin Costner may end up on the hook to pay a South Dakota sculptor for her work after a state Supreme Court decision in her favor.

In 1994, the movie star commissioned Rapid City artist Peggy Detmers to create bronze statues of buffalo and Lakota warriors for a planned Deadwood resort dubbed “The Dunbar,” in a nod to the last name of Costner’s character in the Best Picture-winning film “Dances with Wolves.”

The sculptures were meant to be on display at the Dunbar, but the resort project fizzled. Detmers sued Costner in 2008, asking a court to force the sale of the sculptures and a split of the profits.

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The state Supreme Court ruled against her in 2012, though, because Costner had pivoted from the Dunbar project to a tourist attraction called Tatanka, located on some of the same property. Under the terms of their written agreement and the 2012 Supreme Court ruling in Costner’s favor, the sculptures would stay on that site or be sold.

Detmers sued again in 2021 because Costner put the property up for sale. The sale notice pointed out that the sculptures “will be relocated by seller.”

A sale of everything but the sculptures, she argued, would be a breach of the contract promising to display the sculptures on that site. She asked a judge to either release Costner’s copyright claim to her works so she could display, reproduce and profit off them unencumbered by the contract with Costner, or to force Costner to sell the sculptures and split the profits.

A Lawrence County judge ruled against Detmers. Costner argued that the 2012 Supreme Court decision resolved all contractual disputes, and a Lawrence County judge agreed. 

That set up a second round of oral arguments at the South Dakota Supreme Court in March. This time, in a decision released Thursday, the court sided with the artist in a 5-0 ruling.


The decision’s author, Chief Justice Steven Jensen, wrote that the 2012 case did not settle all disputes and free Costner from his contractual obligations. The issues that have arisen between the artist and the actor since then are new and unique to the current situation, Jensen wrote, and deserve a hearing at the circuit court level.

The court also found that Costner’s obligation to either keep the sculptures on display permanently at Tatanka or sell them off is valid – another claim from Detmers that the local judge had rejected.

The justices rejected Detmers’ final argument, which was that Costner’s bid to sell the property and relocate the sculptures should be enough to force their sale. That obligation on Costner’s part won’t be triggered unless the sale and/or relocation of the sculptures takes place.

“At present, Costner owes Detmers no obligation with respect to the display or sale of the sculptures that she can enforce against him,” Jensen wrote.

The decision sends the case back to Lawrence County for further legal proceedings.


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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.