Book Review: “Visual Arts and the Law: A Handbook for Professionals” (2013)

By Irina Tarsis, Esq.*

“I want to do something splendid…

I think I shall write books.”

Louisa May Alcott

Historically, introducing art law to lawyers and artists, not to mention law and non-law students, used to be a challenge. The majority of artists and lawyers were perplexed by the idea of ‘art law,’ now an accepted practice area that touches upon private as well as public law, national and international art business, and art making. Therefore, a handful of attorneys have grappled with the task of composing textbooks, which would serve as suitable introduction to the discipline.

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 5.28.23 PMThe 2013 offering from the former chair of the Entertainment, Arts & Sports Law Section of the New York State Bar Association, Judith B. Prowda, who is a Senior Lecturer at Sotheby’s Institute of Art teaching Art Law and Ethics, is an excellent teaching tool to present information about artists’ rights and art market relationships in a clear and engaging tone. Her “Visual Arts and the Law: A Handbook for Professionals” (the “Handbook”) is a comprehensible if not comprehensive primer for the uninitiated. It is part of the Handbooks in International Art Business series. Like an art history work, the Handbook is peppered with the familiar names of Calder, Monet, Schiele, and Serra. Like a law textbook, it is devoid of art reproductions. The only visual decoration that the publisher allowed in this text are the three symbolic images on the cover — Portrait of a Lawyer (1866) by Paul Cezanne, Tilted Arc (1981) by Richard Serra, and Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912). The lack of illustrations is regrettable because an art law textbook, unlike other legal publications, stands to benefit from having reproductions of the works that have shaped and given rise to the discipline. The images used for the cover merely scratch the surface of the wealth of imagery that imbues the art law discipline. Luckily, the attorney who authored this Handbook succeeded in penning a clear bird’s-eye view of the discipline.

In the Handbook, Prowda synthesizes information about the basics of copyright and focuses on issues affecting visual arts, such as moral rights, commissions, auctions, expert opinions and title disputes. Consequently, this publication is best suited for artists, students in art and business management, appraisers and gallery employees as well as members of the general public that wish to learn about different aspects of art market as it is affected by the law. The target audience probably excludes those training for legal practice and the active members of the legal bar who already represent artists and galleries as their clients.

As a self-imposed objective, Prowda wished to “give her reader some “context and insights into the most salient legal issues of the day affecting art.” Therefore she organized the materials in the order of what happens with visual artworks from creation to sale in the primary market and again in secondary market. The structure of each section offers historical foundation and recent manifestations of specific legal issues associated with appraisal, authentication, theft, and auctions.

The Handbook is divided into three sections: 1) Artists’ Rights; 2) Artists’ Relationships; and 3) Commercial Aspects of Art, with twelve chapters unevenly split between these topics.  Contemplated as “a tour d’horizon of the complex questions raised in the field of art law,” with some attention given to the law in different countries — U.K., France, Germany as well as the U.S., in her preface Prowda acknowledges that she is covering the material through a U.S.-trained lawyer’s lens as well as looking at limited number of topics. Prowda revisits many classic legal examples: what is art according to Brancusi v. United States (U.S. 1928), and what is copyrightable per Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony (U.S. 1884). The narrative is easy to follow and it flows well from one example and concept to another. The Handbook tackles the big picture and glosses over nuances and gray areas that emerge in numerous related transactions and disputes.   

First section explores Artist’s Rights, namely freedom of expression, including historical overview of obscenity law, right of privacy and publicity, principles of copyright, including its duration, requirements, exclusive rights, infringements, defenses and spends some time discussing fair use exception, including a brief mention of the recent 2nd Circuit fair use case Cariou v. Prince. Here, Prowda spends considerable time exploring moral rights in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S., dating back to France in the 19th century and moving forward to the 1990 enactment of the Visual Artists Rights Act in the United States, and the case law that emerged subsequently. Repeatedly, the Handbook follows a formula of introducing a concept and explaining its origins, past applications and the current state of applicability. Thus, readers who are interested in limited moral rights in the United States or the variety of fair use cases decided by courts in different jurisdictions would need to go beyond the distilled information offered in the Handbook to learn more about the VARA cases, such as Mass MOCA v. Buchel or the different circuits’ applications of the fair use exception to copyright infringement claims.

Second section of the Handbook is dedicated to the artist’s relationships with dealers, collectors and art commissioners. Here, Prowda focuses on fiduciary duties owed to artists and their heirs; she explains relevant sections of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law that deals with consignment of art for sale. Rarity of written contracts and pitfalls of oral contracts are featured prominently in discussion of disputes related to Georgia O’Keeffe or the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. This section certainly would have benefited from offering guidelines for working with attorneys and advisors as well as grant-giving agencies such as the New York Department for Cultural Affairs, which administer public commission. As is, the section is brief and is best summarized as following: due to fact specific and unique relationships between each artist and her dealer or the art commissioner, each negotiation and partnership needs to be carefully reviewed and monitored throughout the relationship.

Third section moves away from the creative process to explore the commercial side of art disposition through the secondary market, collection development, art theft and issues of authenticity. It explores questions surrounding legal title and includes a discussion of good faith purchases of art works. Author underscores the importance of clear and corroborated provenance, duties of different parties involved in art transactions, obligations and rights of creditors, an array of warranties that may accompany change of ownership and technical defenses to combining ownership of art with legal title.

In her treatment of auction houses, Prowda lists various services and duties auctions have to their clients and then she focuses on the seminal 1986 Cristallina v. Christie’s decision that “resulted in significant changes in auction laws and redefined auction practice in New York.” In that case, the auction house was accused of fraudulent misrepresentation in violation of its fiduciary duty to the consigner by failing to assess market conditions. The third section is also used as a vehicle to discuss the antitrust price-fixing scandal that embroiled both leading auction houses in the early 1990s. Prowda briefly introduces the main players and the circumstances of the Sherman Act violations.

The second-to-last chapter of this section explores briefly the subject of expert opinions as they pertain to art appraisal and authentication. In light of the recent legal actions brought against art experts, this section is of great importance to those engaged in creating catalogue raisonnés and labeling art as fakes or forgeries. Prowda explains fiduciary duties owed by experts and explains risks and legal liabilities that may attach to actions of authenticators and appraiser. This section includes discussion of the main legal cases involving opinions on art and its value, including but not limited to the 1929 Hahn v. Duveen decision, as well as Ravenna v. Christie’s (2001) and Double Denied, an antitrust case against the Andy Warhol Foundation decided in 2009.

Finally, the Handbook tackles the temporally, geographically and emotionally-complicated questions regarding title problems related to stolen art, with emphasis on war plunder and Nazi-era looted art. Given the vast body of cases and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms dedicated to solving issues related to Nazi-era looted art, the treatment of this subject in the Handbook merely scratches the surface of the questions and outcomes related to art restitution claims. Prowda chooses to focus on three cases as main illustrations of related issues, specifically U.S. v. Portrait of Wally which was ultimately settled in 2010 for $19 million, Guggenheim Foundation v. Lubel (NY, 1991) and Bakalar v. Vavra (2nd Cir. 2010). However, other important trends affecting the art displaced during the Nazi-period are excluded. For example, the late 1990s and early 2000s case sequence involving American art museums proactively seeking to quiet title through declaratory judgments aimed at keeping possession of once-looted artworks is omitted entirely, as is the discussion of the numerous foreign advisory commissions that review restitution claims brought against public institutions by heirs in France, England, Germany, Austria and so on.

The Handbook ends with an admission that in the 21st century, there are ongoing and profound changes in the production and consumption of art and thus the legal system is continuously tested. The author admits she wanted her readers “to situate themselves within [law, art and commerce] discourse.” She certainly succeeds in giving a long view on perennial important topics even as case law and legislation continue offering new examples and challenges.

Art law is a growing and developing practice area and by definition textbooks and handbooks tend to become outdated as soon as they are submitted to print because of the subsequent developments. This Handbook is no exception. While Prowda talks about Nazi-era looted art, as well as authentication issues such as the threat of litigation that affect authentication boards and commissions, there is understandably no reference to the Gurlitt art trove which was made public in 2013 nor the infamous demise of the Knoedler Gallery in 2011, formerly the oldest art gallery in the United States that was found out as selling forgeries. The first of almost a dozen claims for breach of warranty and negligent misrepresentation against the gallery, its owners and staff were filed as early as 2011; however, the reverberating effect of the downfall was not fully felt until much later. Other materials missing from the Handbook include laws governing the antiquities trade, and questions dealing with import/export of art containing ivory and other problematic materials.

The Handbook would have been more authoritative and easy to use for the legal community if the references and citations were not relegated to endnotes at the end of the volume but appeared at the bottom of the page as footnotes or at least following each chapter. Nevertheless, the Handbook intends to situate its users or reader within various art law related discourse and it accomplishes that task very well. Whether the book inspires students to become art lawyers and thus dive into the specific issues more deeply remains to be seen.

Prowda supplements her writing with a brief bibliography which reads as a “Who is who in Art and Law.” All the usual suspects are represented: Leonard D. DuBoff, Patty Gerstenblith, John Henry Merryman, David Nimmer, Pierre Leval, Judith Bresler, as well as Michael Bazyler, Lawrence M. Kaye and Ronald D. Spencer. Again, just like the Handbook itself, the bibliography offers a sound but basic set of tools. For non-lawyers, the glossary of legal terms is a non-exhaustive list of terms that may or may not need explanation. It includes Latin phrases (e.g., caveat emptor and lex loci), substantive terms (e.g., subpoena and contract), relationships (e.g., fiduciary and agency), causes of action and rights. The concept of due diligence is explained here but good faith purchase is not.

The writer of this review would argue that the subtitle “ Handbook for Professionals” is a confusing description of the text contained within. Perhaps it is the formula imposed by the publisher, however, unlike the guide for collectors, investors, dealers and artists co-authored by Judith Bresler and Ralph E. Lerner, a two-volume $200+ opus akin to Nimmer on Copyright, or Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts volume by John Henry Merryman et all, Prowda’s textbook is a general introduction/a primer for newcomers. It does not bore those lacking the technical training or stamina to work through legal analysis and exhaustively shepardized citations, rather it is a carefully composed teaching tool that ushers its reader at a comfortable pace through fascinating and varied legal history. Professionals would need to dig deeper into each subject; however, given the paucity of affordable basic textbooks for students learning about art law, this volume is an excellent option for any art law professor seeking to introduce countless areas for study and further exploration. Perhaps it should have been titled “A Handbook for Future Professionals.” The Handbook may be coupled with select case decisions and legislative material for an effective introduction to the fascinating field that concerns art, art history and law.

Prowda’s Handbook is a tool designed to further adoption and acceptance of art law, and given its modest price in comparison with other art law publications, it is a worthy addition to any mentor or art law instructor’s reference library. It is a solid stepping-stone to further popularizing the art law discipline.

Cited Cases:

  • Bakalar v. Vavra, 619 F.3d 136 (2d Cir. 2010).
  • Brancusi v. United States, 54 Treas. Dec. 428 (1928).
  • Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53, 4 S. Ct. 279, 28 L. Ed. 349 (1884).
  • Cariou v. Prince, 714 F.3d 694 (2d Cir. 2013).
  • Cristallina v. Christie’s, 117 A.D.2d 284, 502 N.Y.S.2d 165 (App. Div. 1986).
  • Guggenheim Found. v. Lubell, 77 N.Y.2d 311, 567 N.Y.S.2d 623, 569 N.E.2d 426 (1991).
  • Hahn v. Duveen, 234 N.Y.S. 185, 133 Misc. 871, 133 Misc. Rep. 871 (1929).
  • Lagrange et al v. Knoedler Gallery, LLC et al, 1:2011cv08757 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 1, 2011).
  • MA MUSEUM, CONTEMP. ART FOUN. v. Buchel, 593 F.3d 38 (1st Cir. 2010).
  • Ravenna v. Christie’s Inc., 289 A.D.2d 15, 734 N.Y.S.2d 21 (App. Div. 2001).
  • Serra v. US General Services Admin., 847 F.2d 1045 (2d Cir. 1988).
  • Simon-Whelan v. Andy Warhol Found. for the Visual Arts, Inc., 2009 W.L. 1457177 (2009).
  • US v. Portrait of Wally, 105 F. Supp. 2d 288 (S.D.N.Y. 2000).

About the Author: Irina Tarsis, Esq., specializes in art law, provenance research and cultural heritage law. She may be reached at itsartlaw@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: This article presents general information and is not intended as legal advice.

Reprinted with permission from: Entertainment, Arts and Sports Law Journal, Spring 2015, Vol. 26, No. 1, published by the New York State Bar Association, Albany, NY.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Visual Arts and the Law: A Handbook for Professionals” (2013)

  1. I like Prowda’s book. To try to help my students save on textbooks, I’m going to give it a try this semester. My students will be pulling images and original legal sources on-line to enrich our analysis.

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