The federal government accused a 6-year-old of plagiarism and stripped her of her victory in this year's national Junior Duck Stamp contest, leaving the youngest-ever winner in tears and igniting a fierce debate in the wildlife art community over artistic techniques, precocious youngsters and catty parents.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the annual contest, says that by first tracing the outlines of her duck from one of her father's unpublished photos before painting it, Madison Grimm violated the rules.
But Madison's father Adam says the rules don't actually ban tracing or "graphite transfer," and he is backed up by the man who used to run the program and helped write the current rules, who said there's no way Madison should have been disqualified — much less been declared the winner and then had it rescinded.
"Between my daughter crying and my wife crying, it's been a nightmare," Mr. Grimm told The Washington Times this week.
The agency seemed to finger Madison's age — she is the youngest winner in history — as its chief concern.
"I am sure you are aware that there were questions about the ability of a 6-year-old to create such a polished and professional piece of art," Laurie M. Shaffer, chief of the federal duck stamp program, wrote in a letter to the Grimms, returning Madison's painting.
"Since we have the integrity and credibility of the program as well as the responsibility to 29,000 students, their parents and teachers, we are disqualifying the entry," Ms. Shaffer wrote.
The agency pointed to two parts of the rules as potential violations: One was a section saying entries "must be the contestant's original, hand-illustrated creation and may not be traced or copied from published photographs or other artists' works." The other section specified that "only work that is the unique creation of the individual student should be entered into competition."
At another point the rules specifically say using photos the student took as a reference is acceptable.
Robert Lesino, who ran the duck stamp program from 1993 through 2001, said he was shocked that the current program officials wrote the letter disqualifying Madison, saying the explanation seemed thin to him.
He said the rules were meant to stop someone from taking a picture from the encyclopedia and tracing it, or tracing over a previous year's duck stamp winner. He said graphite transfer from someone's own unpublished photo was not meant to be outlawed.
"If you rub it with graphite and then put it on your canvas you've still got to do a heck of a lot of work to get that painting Madison got," he said. "Those are all accepted artistic processes."
For the uninitiated, duck stamps are a big thing. The winner's painting appears on the annual federal stamp, which is the national government's permit to hunt migratory waterfowl. The stamps are considered collectables, and the paintings they are based on become famous within the wildlife art community.
Mr. Lesino said winning the adult contest can be worth as much as $1 million in marketing rights for the artist.
Madison, who lives in Burbank, S.D. first won the South Dakota competition, then won the national contest in April — though her victory was rescinded several days later and the agency named runner-up Peter Coulter 17, of Washington, Mo., as the new winner.
Reading the letters and online comments, it appears that other parents complained about Madison chiefly because of her father, who at 21 became the youngest-ever adult duck stamp winner in 1999.
But Mr. Grimm says his daughter did all the work, and his wife Janet said Madison even mixed many of her colors. Madison is home-schooled and spends time out photographing ducks with her father, or in his studio while he's painting.
Rachel Levin, a spokeswoman for the duck stamp program, said the rules may not have been as clear as they should have been.
She said going forward, she didn't know whether this means every winner in the future will face a similar investigation.
"I honestly don't know. This all happened very quickly, it was a very unfortunate situation, it was a very hard decision for us to make," Ms. Levin said. "Now we are presented with an opportunity — we know we need to go back to the rules, clarify those and possibly discuss some standard procedures when concerns are raised about winning art."
The Duck Stamp Program rescinded Madison's victory without calling her or her parents to do an investigation.
In her letter, duck stamp chief Ms. Shaffer seemed to place the responsibility for the decision at the feet of South Dakota's Junior Duck Stamp program coordinator, April Gregory.
"Late last Friday, we received some information from the South Dakota Junior Duck Stamp state coordinator that we did not have before the national contest judging," Laurie M. Shaffer, chief of the federal program, said in the letter. "We knew there had been a challenge voiced after the state competition regarding the painting, but we did not know the actual conversation the coordinator had with Janet."
Mrs. Grimm said she has no clue what that conversation would be. The only extended talk she had with Ms. Gregory was even before the deadline for the South Dakota competition — well before Madison won the state and moved on to the national finals.
Ms. Gregory did not return phone or email messages left for her by The Times.
The South Dakota program website still lists Madison as the state winner.
The immediate money at stake is not insignificant — winning the junior stamp carries with it a $5,000 prize. But the prestige and the potential marketing rights to the painting are bigger.
But for Mr. Grimm there's also a matter of professional integrity.
"They put out a national press release basically saying she cheated. It reflects badly," he said.
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