Hold your Horses: Art Authenticators Not Protected Yet

By Irina Tarsis, Esq.*

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 3.01.42 PMOn June 15, 2015, New York State Senate passed a revised version of the Bill S01229A intended to amend the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law  by adding a provision intended to encourage art historians to offer their opinions concerning authenticity, attribution and authorship of works of fine art.

The proposed amendment is intended to protect art authenticators in the visual arts community from the risk of civil action suits. Why is this group in need of special protection? It is because the risk is real: those who opine on authenticity of artworks are increasingly threatened with legal action by the outraged/indignant collectors whose dreams of owning (and selling a masterwork) are dashed by the professional and expert opinions of authenticators.

Screen shot 2015-07-01 at 10.19.32 AMWe and others have reported on the plight of art authentication committees previously and together we are waiting to see our Google Alerts announce the passage of the New York State proposed law that would grant protection to the authenticators. This Bill has been in the works for years, a more robust version having been introduced without success back in 2013. Despite all the anticipation, as of July 1, 2015 the law has not passed yet, though some headlines have been suggesting or hinting otherwise. See for example “Art Authenticators Harassed by Lawsuits and Death Threats Get New Legal Protection” and “New York Senate Passes Bill to Protect Art Authenticators.”

Having some version of the Bill pass the New York Senate is a promising first step, but the battle is far from over. The New York Assembly has to vote in favor of the Bill as well. As of June 26, 2015, the first half of the 2015-2016 Session of the New York State Legislature is in recess. It is unclear at this time why the amendment was not brought up for a vote in the Assembly between the 15th of June and the 26th of June last month. However, unless the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, Carl E. Heastie, calls for a special session, the New York Assembly members will not return to vote on any of the pending bills until sometime in 2016. While the Assembly version of the Bill, A01018A, will not need to be reintroduced at that time (the Bill number remains unchanged for the entire two-year cycle), the Bill sponsors will have to bring it for a vote. If and when the Bill passes both houses, it will be presented to the Governor, Andrew Mark Cuomo, to either sign or reject. In the case of latter, sponsors of the Bill would need to go through yet another round of edits, introductions, lobbying, etc., etc.

The earliest the current Bill could be enacted in New York, if it is approved in the 2015-2016 Session and promptly endorsed by the Governor, is “the sixtieth day after it shall have become a law.” Then and only then, will “all [good faith] opinions as to the authenticity, attribution or authorship of a work of fine art provided to someone other than the authenticator” will be afforded protections “to ensure that only valid, verifiable claims against authenticators are allowed to proceed in civil court.” (See the full text of the proposed bill for details.)

Indeed, the law is anticipated to have an extraterritorial reach for art authenticators. For example, individuals outside of New York State would be able to contract for New York State law to govern any disputes arising from the agreement to review authenticity of an artwork. However, for now, and until January 2016, there is no change in circumstances and art authenticators remain exposed to litigation and to the ire of art holders seeking affirmation that they struck gold and not pyrite.

* * *

The full text of the proposed bill is available here. Following are some of the sections from the Bill (with our editorial underlining) and excerpts from the Legislative Memo justifying the passage of the law:

Act to Amend New York Arts & Cultural Affairs Law:

IN ANY CIVIL ACTION BROUGHT AGAINST AN AUTHENTICATOR, … , THAT ARISES FROM OR RELATES TO THE AUTHENICATOR’S [SIC] OPINION OR INFORMATION CONCERNING A VISUAL ART MULTIPLE OR WORK OF FINE ART, THE CLAIMANT SHALL SPECIFY WITH PARTICULARITY IN THE COMPLAINT FACTS SUFFICIENT TO SUPPORT EACH ELEMENT OF THE CLAIM OR CLAIMS ASSERTED. (NY Arts and Cultural Affairs Law Section 15.12).

IN ANY CIVIL ACTION BROUGHT AGAINST AN AUTHENTICATOR … THAT ARISES FROM OR RELATES TO THE AUTHENTICATOR’S OPINION OR INFORMATION CONCERNING A VISUAL ART MULTIPLE OR WORK OF FINE ART, THE COURT MAY ALLOW THE PREVAILING AUTHENTICATOR THE COSTS OF THE ACTION TOGETHER WITH REASONABLE ATTORNEYS’ AND EXPERT WITNESSES’ FEES, PROVIDED, HOWEVER, THAT NO SUCH COSTS OR FEES SHALL BE MADE PURSUANT TO THIS SECTION EXCEPT UPON A WRITTEN FINDING OF GOOD AND JUST CAUSE, WHICH SHALL SPECIFY THE GROUNDS THEREOF. (NY Arts and Cultural Affairs Law Sec. 15.15 (4)B).

Justification:

In general, artwork is authenticated by a trained person through documentation, stylistic inquiry, and/or scientific verification. No one method is perfect as oftentimes authenticity is difficult to determine. While each authentication method has its own drawbacks, the role of authenticators as drivers of the art market cannot be overstated. Art authenticators reduce the risk of counterfeits and imitations flooding the art market that could potentially devalue the work of millions of artists.

In recent years, the work of authenticators has come under pressure from meritless lawsuits against those who render opinions in good faith. Such defense of expensive and frivolous lawsuits have left many in the industry reluctant to lend their expertise in authenticating art works.

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About the Author: This editorial is by Irina Tarsis, art lawyer and Founder and Director of Center for Art Law.

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