It Takes Two to Tango: The Importance of Artist-Gallery Contracts

By Scotti Hill*

tango-108483_1280

Creative Commons.

Of course galleries are venues of intellectual engagement and social activity, but it can be easy to forget that they also act as hubs for commercial exchange. The same mechanisms that govern relationships between blue-chip artists and mega-galleries ought to be in place to protect emerging artists and pop-up galleries as well. Beneath the veneer of originality and artistic merit lie monetarily-driven representation agreements and consignment contracts. The status quo is driven by mutual interest: galleries need artists to create their inventory so their clients have something to buy, and artists need galleries for their infrastructure and access to art buyers. By creating a roadmap that enables both parties to navigate their working relationships, contracts are at once practical and imperative. So, given the importance of a well-drafted and carefully negotiated contract in almost all areas of commerce, why do artists and galleries often fail to formalize the nature of their relationships in contractual form?

On July 19, 2016, Center for Art Law hosted an art law mixer entitled “Good Fences Make Good Contracts” to explore the question of contracts between artists and galleries. As a follow up, this article examines the intricacies of standard representation and consignment agreements, while also delving into the legal basis for such contracts–namely the Uniform Commercial Code Sect. 9-102 and the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law §12.01, Artist and Merchant Relationships. To illustrate benefits of having carefully crafted contracts between artists and galleries, some high-profile relationships, such as the representation and the rumored split between Richard Prince and the Gagosian Gallery highlight select  issues that may arise in an artist-gallery relationship.

Introduction to the Standard Artist-Gallery Contract

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 1.04.59 PMWhen entering into a commercial relationship, an artist or gallery may choose to draft a standard representation agreement whereby the gallery agrees to work as an agent on the artist’s behalf. The scope of this agency is negotiated by the parties, as some galleries hope to serve as an artist’s exclusive agent in a geographic area (New York City, for example), while others agree to serve as agent for one specific medium or collection the artist produces. Such agreements set provisions for matters like how revenue is shared after a sale, whether the gallery receives commissions on work sold from the artist’s studio, and the duration and scope of consignment. The following items are also commonly included in artist-gallery contracts:

  • Duration of contract including renewal and termination clauses;
  • Commission structure, terms of payment and other accounting procedures;
  • Transportation procedures;
  • Gallery promotion, marketing and copyright;
  • Coverage and provisions of insurance policies.

After establishing representation with a gallery, artists then consign their artwork to them for safekeeping with the expectation the gallery will sell their inventory. By definition, consignment is the act of assigning the property of one party (consigner, be it an artist or a collector) to that of another (consignee, here a gallery), for sale under contract. As part of the larger representation contract, a consignment agreement should list all the works given to a gallery by the consignor, with an authority to sell a specified group of the artist’s work and providing an indexical record of works in the gallery’s possession.

Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Sect. 9-102, and New York Arts and Cultural Affair Law §12.01, Artist and Merchant Relationships

While the Uniform Commercial Code is the overarching body of laws concerning the sale of goods and commercial transactions federally, each state has adopted its own commercial code. UCC Section 9-102 sets guidelines for parties engaging in commerce regardless of the existence of a written contract. As it relates to the consignment relationship between artist and gallery, the UCC dictates important provisions that have been upheld over time by case law, namely the criteria and value of goods classified under ‘consignment’ and consignor’s rights in the event of bankruptcy. See Jacobs v. Kraken Inv. Ltd., (In re Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, LLC), 506 B.R. 600 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2014)

In addition to the UCC, thirty-one states have adopted statutes to address the specific circumstances governing art transactions. In New York, for example, the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law (NYACAL), Article 12, provides a governing structure for interpreting contracts between artists and galleries. On November 6, 2012, New York’s consignment law was updated to include additional protections for artists by imposing stricter measures on galleries and dealers as consignors. The updated NYACAL addresses three fundamental weaknesses in earlier consignment law: requiring dealers and galleries to place sale funds in a protected trust, awarding attorneys fees for successful petitioners and requiring that critical sections of the consignment agreement be memorialized in writing. The 2012 amendment directly addresses the UCC’s problematic rendering of consigned artwork eligible for seizure by creditors, which is perhaps one of the UCC’s most controversial points.

Before the 2012 revision to the law, creditors could legally seize artworks in a consigner’s possession in order to fulfill unpaid debts. Although galleries do not own artworks on consignment, the creditor exists as a third party outside of, and therefore not bound by, the terms of a contract forged between the artist and gallery. The lack of solid legal remedies for consignors is what has propelled many states to revise their laws to deal specifically with the consignment of art, while in New York, the mammoth Salander-O’Reilly Galleries lawsuit became a catalyst for the amendment.

As such, an important provision exists in many amended state laws: that the gallery be rendered trustees to the artist’s property, which necessitates they hold revenue from the sale of an artwork in a special trust–apart from other gallery funds–that will be paid in full to the artist at an agreed upon time. This amendment works to 1) prevent creditors from seizing consigned art because the value of such works is protected in a trust, and 2) protect trust funds from being improperly used by the galleries to fulfill other financial obligations.

Indeed both parties may take advantage of vague contractual terms or actively work against the creation of a contract. Amended laws aim to prevent this by adding specific fiduciary responsibilities for both parties. Ultimately, if the artist-gallery partnership exists in a state without a comprehensive consignment statute, the parties can, and should, provide through contract the provisions missing from state law.

Richard Prince and Gagosian Gallery Split

After more than a decade and a string of highly successful exhibitions together, news broke in June 2016 that Richard Prince and Gagosian Gallery were going their separate ways. Neither the  veracity of the news nor the details of the alleged split are known, but if true may be explained by the mounting costs from legal battles involving the pair in recent years, which implicate and name Larry Gagosian and his gallery as a contributory infringer.  See Graham v. Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Inc., and Lawrence Gagosian, Cariou v. Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Inc. and Lawrence Gagosian, and Dennis Morris v. Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery, Inc. and Does 1 through 10 inclusive.

As part of his famous appropriation work, Prince takes the copyright-protected work of other creators and repurposes it in new contexts. While critics and collectors have repeatedly lauded this process, photographers whose work has been used without permission have taken a different approach. From 2014-2016, three copyright infringement lawsuits were filed against Prince by photographers Patrick Cariou, Donald Graham and Dennis Morris. In Cariou v. Prince, 714 F.3d 694 (2nd Cir. 2013), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that Prince did not infringe the copyright of 25 of the 30 images he appropriated from Patrick Cariou’s collection of photographs under the fair use exception of copyright law. For his use of the remaining five images in the collection, Prince settled out of court. The infringement cases brought by Graham and Morris are ongoing.

As agents working on the artist’s behalf, galleries accompany artists through creative peaks and declines. While much is made about how important contracts are for artists, galleries are wise to incorporate a termination clause in the contract in order to guard themselves from potential problems that may arise in the course of the relationship. A well-drafted termination clause, for example, is helpful in providing a protocol for the  manner in which the parties can terminate their professional relationship; a termination clause affords the party on the receiving end of the “breakup” adequate time to prepare for the transition. This is particularly important in instances where the gallery has crafted an exhibition or otherwise made plans with specific artworks. A typical clause of this kind would require the party initiating the split to give notice of anywhere from one to three months to the other party.

We do not know if Prince had a contract with Gagosian, but at the very least, it is likely the two agreed upon such critical provisions as payment and consignment of inventory. Despite news of the split earlier this summer, Prince is still featured on Gagosian’s website, which may indicate the two have yet to part ways. And even then, the separation may only be temporary.  After all, artist Damien Hirst reunited with the Gagosian Gallery for 2016’s Frieze New York following a three year split.

Conclusion

Although many states have amended their consignment laws, still other states have yet to follow suit. In areas of the nation where art represents a decidedly small segment of the larger economy, less incentive exists to add in the necessary protections that have been greatly appreciated in large art markets. On a practical level, however, artists can protect themselves by being vocal about their desire for a consignment contract. Contracts create a roadmap for the artist-gallery relationship and can offer clarity  if/when any unforeseen grey areas arise in the course of doing business together. When entering into a business relationship with a gallery, artists are wise to seek out feedback from their peers about the gallery’s reputation and its willingness to negotiate mutually beneficial terms at the outset. Various resources exist online, most important of which are copies of the standard representation and consignment agreements that can serve as a starting point for both parties. Ultimately, if an artist is faced with unique circumstances relating to their practice or needs, they may wish to seek legal representation before, and oftentimes during, their formal acceptance of a gallery’s offer of representation.

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nieto_dickens_art_law_mixer_2016_2_web

Photo by Luis Nieto Dickens | @vla_newyork

On July 19, 2016, Center for Art Law (the “Center”) hosted “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” a Summer Art Law Mixer made possible with support from the New York Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. The event focused on contracts between artists and galleries and how attorneys negotiate on behalf of their clients. Moderated by the Founding Director of the Center, Irina Tarsis, the panel featured three speakers, all attorneys specializing in art law. Dean Nicyper, a litigator with Withers Worldwide, and involved with revising the NYACAL law, provided a general overview of the legal considerations of artist-gallery contracts, Amelia Brankov of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, spoke about the ways in which artists can advocate on their own behalf in forging contracts with galleries and Katherine Wilson-Milne of Schindler Cohen & Hochman, commented on what considerations galleries have when drafting contracts with artists. Attendees, including practicing attorneys, students and artists, asked questions ranging from the appropriate etiquette of negotiating such contracts to how to best situate oneself to prevent and later reconcile potential legal issues that arise from this union. One main take-away from the evening was that that clear terms of a consignment agreement between artists and dealers make for good symbiotic relations between the two key players in the art market.

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About the author: Scotti Hill is a J.D. Candidate, 2018 from the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. She serves as a summer 2016 legal intern for the Center for Art Law, and works as an art critic and curator. Prior to law school, she received a Master’s Degree in art history and visual studies. She can be reached at scottiaustinhill@gmail.com

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow: Covenants Not to Compete Between Auction Houses

*By Elizabeth Weber, Esq.

Covenants not to compete (CNCs), also called non-compete clauses or simply non-competes, are commonplace in employment contracts. Generally, CNCs seek to prevent an employee from leaving his or her current employer to work for a direct competitor. CNCs typically last for a set period of time and only pertain to a specific geographic area. In specialized fields like the art market, these restrictive covenants prevent employees from moving between similar companies with the ease they would prefer. Specifically, CNCs entered into by auction house employees present unique issues to those who work in the field and seek career developments due to the limited number of major auction houses, especially within a particular geographic area.

Covenants Not to Compete

A covenant not to compete is a contractual provision in which one party, the employee, affirms that he or she will not work for a market competitor within a specified geographic area for a particular period of time after the employment period ends. CNCs are a part of  contract law and, as such, are dictated by state law. In New York,

[t]he modern, prevailing common-law standard of reasonableness for employee agreements not to compete applies a three-pronged test. A restraint is reasonable only if it: (1) is no greater than is required for the protection of the legitimate interest of the employer, (2) does not impose undue hardship on the employee, and (3) is not injurious to the public.

BDO Seidman v. Hirshberg, 93 N.Y.2d 382, 388-89 (1999) (emphasis omitted). A violation of any of the three prongs may invalidate the CNC completely unless the suit arises in a state that follows the blue pencil rule. When a particular CNC provision is overbroad, courts in blue pencil states may reform or strike the offending provisions from the contract while the rest of the CNC remains intact and partially enforceable. For example, New York allows courts to reform overbroad CNCs; Florida courts follow a mandatory CNC reformation regime; and California law does not permit the use of CNCs, although the use of CNCs to protect trade secrets in California is unsettled. Beck Reed Riven LLP’s extensive state-by-state chart provides a more in-depth view of CNC law by state.

Additionally, in Reed, Roberts Assocs. v. Strauman, a 1976 case involving the enforceability of CNCs, the New York State Court of Appeals specifically focused on the fact that “our economy is premised on the competition engendered by the uninhibited flow of services, talent and ideas. Therefore, no restrictions should fetter an employee’s right to apply to his own best advantage the skills and knowledge acquired by the overall experience of his previous employment.” Reed, Roberts Assocs. v. Strauman, 40 N.Y.2d 303, 307 (1976). Despite the Court of Appeals’ focus on an employee’s right to participate in the market economy, this right is not limitless. CNCs may be used to prevent a former employee from disclosing a company’s trade secrets or confidential client information or, alternatively, CNCs may be enforced if the former employee performed unique or extraordinary services for the former employer. Id. at 308.

Auction House CNC Case Study: Heritage Auctioneers v. Christie’s

Despite the prevalence of CNCs, few cases that involve breached covenants within the auction house world arise. One case in particular illustrates the importance of CNCs: the ongoing matter between Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries and Christie’s. Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries v. Christie’s, Sup Ct, New York County, 2014, Oing, J., index No. 651806/2014.

Heritage involves three former Heritage employees who specialized in the pre-owned luxury accessories sector (think vintage Hermès Birkin bags): Matthew Rubinger, Rachel Koffsky, and Caitlin Donovan, who worked in Heritage’s Luxury Accessories department with Rubinger serving as both Director and department head while Koffsky and Donovan held positions as Director of Operations and Director of Consignments, respectively.

According to Heritage’s complaint, Heritage hired Rubinger in 2010 to head the company’s Luxury Accessories business right out of college. The company alleges that it “invested in Rubinger’s identity” to elevate Rubinger within the auction world and brand him as the face of Heritage’s Luxury Accessories department worldwide. Complaint, Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries v. Christie’s, Sup Ct, New York County, 2014, Oing, J., index No. 651806/2014. As their Luxury Accessories business grew, Heritage hired Koffsky and Donovan in that department as well.

Four years later, in 2014, Rubinger renewed his written contract with Heritage through December 31, 2014. Rubinger’s employment contract included both CNC and non-solicitation clauses and an additional non-disclosure clause in which he affirmed that he would not disclose any of Heritage’s trade secrets. Specifically, the CNC provision in Rubinger’s contract stated that Rubinger would not work for a Heritage competitor anywhere in North America for twenty-four months after ending his employment with Heritage. Koffsky and Donovan’s employment contracts included a nondisclosure agreement only. The text of Rubinger’s CNC as shown in Heritage’s complaint is included below.

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Images found in Complaint, Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries v. Christie’s, Sup Ct, New York County, 2014, Oing, J., index No. 651806/2014.

During the week of May 12, 2014, Christie’s extended offers of employment to Rubinger, Koffsky, and Donovan. On May 16th, Rubinger accepted the offer from Christie’s Hong Kong, Ltd., which is based and conducts business in Hong Kong, China. Koffsky and Donovan accepted offers from Christie’s, Inc., which is based in the United States. The three resigned from Heritage the following Monday, May 19th.

Heritage subsequently filed suit against Christie’s, Rubinger, Koffsky, and Donovan on June 13, 2014. The complaint alleges that Christie’s engaged in unfair business practices; tortiously interfered with Heritage contracts; induced, aided, and abetted Heritage employees to violate their fiduciary duties; and misappropriated trade secrets and other proprietary information. The complaint further alleges that Rubinger, Koffsky, and Donovan all breached their fiduciary duty of loyalty to Heritage in addition to breaching their Heritage employment contracts.

In response, the defendants asserted that Christie’s Hong Kong and Rubinger specifically structured their employment arrangement to avoid breaching Rubinger’s CNC with Heritage. Defendants’ Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, Heritage Auctioneers & Galleries v. Christie’s, Sup Ct, New York County, 2014, Oing, J., index No. 651806/2014. By working in Hong Kong, not the United States, Christie’s and Rubinger argued that Rubinger complied with the territorial terms of his CNC. Christie’s further stated that Rubinger, Koffsky, and Donovan were instructed not to use or disclose to Christie’s or use for Christie’s benefit any information derived from their time with Heritage. The defendants also noted that Heritage failed to provide any evidence that Rubinger, Koffsky, or Donovan utilized any confidential information thus far during their employ with Christie’s.

Heritage is currently pending in the New York Supreme Court before Justice Jeffrey K. Oing, and updates regarding this case will follow.

What Does the Future Hold for Auction House CNCs?

In addition to Heritage, recent shakeups at Christie’s and Sotheby’s have reinforced how important CNCs are for auction houses. For example, after the former chairman of Christie’s Americas, Marc Porter, resigned his position with Christie’s in December 2015, The New York Times reported that “after a noncompete period of about a year, [Porter] will join Sotheby’s in a high-ranking position that has yet to be announced but is expected to involve international client development.” The fact that Porter must wait about a year before joining Sotheby’s puts both Sotheby’s and Porter at a distinct disadvantage: the company must hold Porter’s future position open during this time period while Porter awaits the expiration of the CNC period before joining Sotheby’s.

Interestingly, it appears that Sotheby’s attempted to renegotiate Porter’s CNC with Christie’s by offering to waive the CNC of a former Sotheby’s employee who planned to join Christie’s. The New York Times reported in February 2016 that Sotheby’s offered to release Guillaume Cerutti, former Sotheby’s deputy chairman in Europe and chief executive in France, from a CNC if Christie’s would respond in kind and release Marc Porter from his CNC obligation before the contracted duration of the CNC. Reportedly, Christie’s declined this offer.

CNCs in the auction house world may be an attempt by top houses to avoid any semblance of collusion. In 2000, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s settled a $512,000,000 price-fixing lawsuit “amid allegations that the two auction houses had colluded on fixing the commissions paid by buyers and sellers of art.” Accordingly, strong CNCs in auction house employment contracts may serve as preventative measures to demonstrate a complete lack of collusion on the part of either house. What is more likely, however, is that the competing businesses wish to avoid client poaching and using valuable insights learned at their former place of employment in unfair business practices that may result from well-informed individuals using the information for the benefit of a new employer.

Conclusion

While there are thousands of auction houses worldwide, the number of leading international houses is much smaller and, as such, employment opportunities at top-tier houses are limited. Either due to the corporate culture or the CNCs, changing allegiances between these top houses incite great interest in both clients and the media. The widespread use of CNCs in auction house employment contracts serves to encourage institutional loyalty and decrease lateral movement between the top houses, but the question remains–who really wins when CNCs are strictly enforced in the auction house world?

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*About the Author: Elizabeth Weber is a lawyer living in Brooklyn, NY. Elizabeth graduated from the University of Florida Levin College of Law where she received her certificate in Intellectual Property Law and served as an active member of the Art Law Society and the Journal of Technology Law and Policy. Elizabeth is the Spring/Summer 2016 Postgraduate Fellow with the Center for Art Law.

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advice. Instead, readers should seek an attorney with any legal questions.

 

Book Review: Elizabeth T. Russell’s “Arts Law Conversations”

From the editors: Case reviews, event reviews and now book reviews. Center for Art Law frequently receives notices of upcoming publications and accepts books for review. In addition to the list of Publications, we are happy to offer comments about some of the recently published materials on the subject of law and visual arts.

Arts Law Conversations

By Melissa (YoungJae) Koo*

Elizabeth T. Russell’s Arts Law Conversation: A Surprisingly Readable Guide for Arts Entrepreneurs (Ruly Press, 2014) (the “2014 Guide”) is a must-read for young arts professionals and students who call themselves artists or creators across all forms. As stated by the author in the Preface, the 2014 edition is a revision of the award-winning 2005 Art Law Conversations: A Surprisingly Readable Guide for Visual Artists. Note from the previous book’s title that while the 2005 version focused on “Art” and “Visual Artists,” the new book included “Arts” and “Arts Entrepreneurs” in response to those creative entrepreneurs who felt that the previous version did not cover non-visual artists’ legal issues.

From a soon-to-be-graduating law student’s perspective, the book is an excellent legal resource for people in the creative communities. The book should not be taken as legal advice, however, as it is “intended to provide accurate information regarding the subject matter,” reminded by the author on the first page of the book. What is most remarkable about this book is its wealth of legal information broken down in everyday language—anyone who is not familiar with legalese could enjoy reading it. As an added bonus, this book is humorous and witty, making it a truly delightful read. This reviewer could not help but wish for other  casebooks used in law school to have been as entertaining and as informative.

The 2014 Guide consists of fifty-two “Arts Law Conversations,” divided into four sections: I. Navigating the Legal System, II. Intellectual Property, III. Contracts, and IV. Business Issues You Might Have Overlooked. Each conversation explores a topic or a legal issue that art creators could face in a script-like hypothetical conversation form, bullet points, Q&A form, or a mixture of them. First and foremost, the book opens with a conversation called “First Thing First: The United States Constitution.” In bullet points, the author narrates the background and content of the Constitution in plain English, reminding readers of the foundation of the laws in the country. The second conversation introduces readers to the concept of jurisdictions and venues, possibly the first thing new law students learn in civil procedure class, through a hypothetical conversation between an artist in conflict with a gallery and her lawyer friend.

As the first two conversations of the book give readers a glimpse of the entire book, the author endeavors to engage readers to follow and clearly understand complexities of laws or concepts that could even be challenging to law students. Throughout the book, names of important concepts are bolded and main points are separately headlined on the side of pages, aiding readers’ understanding and refreshing what they have read. Some conversations also have a practical section called “YOU TRY,” encouraging readers to engage with the material, for example, by looking up a landmark case or other important facts not discussed in conversations. Although I wished that the section had an answer key somewhere in the book, the practical exercises allow readers to interact with the legal topic. The book also provides information on how to conduct legal research for people who are not in the legal field, making it genuinely artist-friendly. In addition to the appendix section of indexes, table of cases, and Bill of Rights, the book has an extensive glossary section where it lists definitions of concepts discussed in the book, which would be helpful for readers.

The book discusses not only relevant intellectual property laws for creative people, but it also lays out important tips about contracts. For example, the author explains commissioning agreements and goes over details about fine art consignment agreements, referring to UCC and various state statutes that artists should be aware of. Arts entrepreneurs are also reminded of other important business issues that could intertwine with legal matters such as organizing business, taxation, and collection. As if the author could read the minds of creative entrepreneurs, she comprehensively covers a variety of topics that has anything to do with law, which could be daunting to non-legal professionals. Creative people who want to protect their hard work or want to start their own business using their creative skills could truly benefit from this brilliant book. For law students or lawyers, this book is a great review of trademark, copyright, contracts, and corporations law.

About the Author: Melissa (YoungJae) Koo, Legal Intern with Center for Art Law, is a third year student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, concentrating in Intellectual Property law, especially art and fashion law. She can be reached at youngjae.koo@law.cardozo.yu.edu.

Disclaimer: Reading this book or its review is no substitute for getting your legal questions answered by a trained attorney.

Case Review: Red Rothko Suit, a.k.a. Hoffman v. L&M Arts (TX)

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1961)

Mark Rothko, Untitled (1961). Source: http://www.wikiart.org.

By Chris Michaels, Esq.*

A private art sale involving a Rothko painting is the subject of a bitter lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas. Inadvertently, the dispute sheds light on the often hidden intricacies and nuance of confidential deals. Hoffman v. L&M Arts, et al, deals with an alleged breach of contract relating to a confidentiality provision of a Letter Agreement that provided for a private sale of artwork. The lessons to be learned from this controversy may protect future sellers and buyers who may wish to enter into private sale agreements.

The painting at the heart of the sale is a 1961 Mark Rothko oil, Untitled, executed in bold red and orange (hereinafter the “Red Rothko”), which was owned by the Plaintiff, Marguerite Hoffman, a prominent art collector from Dallas. Plaintiff and her late husband pledged to donate their collection to the Dallas Museum of Art upon their death, although they retained the option to sell paintings during the lifetime. The Red Rothko was on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art, of which Ms. Hoffman is a trustee, prior to the sale, and Hoffman made a conscious decision to use a private sale option to safeguard from the public her decision to dispose of the work instead of donating it to the museum. In April of 2007, Hoffman sold the painting under the terms of a Letter Agreement, which served as an agreement between the Greenberg Van Doren Gallery acting for Hoffman and L&M Arts, a California gallery that has since closed, acting on behalf of the buyer. Principals for the Van Doren Gallery and L&M Arts signed the letter, which contained the following confidentiality provision: “[a]ll parties agree to make maximum effort to keep all aspects of this transaction confidential indefinitely. In addition, the buyer agrees not to hang or display the work for six months following receipt of the painting.” Contractual agreements between Hoffman and Van Doren Gallery and between L&M Arts and the buyer, David Martinez are still confidential. But for the resulting controversy, the terms of the sale as well as the sale itself would have remained hidden from the public.

According to the complaint filed by Hoffman in May of 2010, the private April 2007 sale was finalized for a total price of $17.6 million. Subsequently, L&M invoiced David Martinez and Studio Capital, Inc. (also defendants in this case) for the painting. Studio Capital thereafter took possession of the painting and put it in storage. Three years later, the painting was consigned to Sotheby’s for sale, and on 12 May 2010, the painting was sold at auction with great publicity for $31,442,500. The Hammer price exceeded Hoffman’s earnings from the private sale by $13,842,500. As a result of the sale at auction, Hoffman brought suit against L&M, Martinez, Studio Capital, and others, alleging, among other things, that the defendants breached the confidentiality clause of the Letter Agreement and that subsequently Hoffman suffered damages because, “when she sold the Rothko painting privately, she did so at a substantial discount in exchange for the promise of strict confidentiality, forfeiting the additional millions of dollars the painting would have brought if sold at public auction.” The great chagrin and displeasure of Hoffman is easy to understand but whether her position has legal basis was left to the courts to decide.

In the December 2013 trial that followed, the jury found that the defendants did, in fact, breach the contract and awarded damages of $1.2 million to Hoffman. (The damages award itself presents a thorny procedural issue that will not be explored here). After the award was entered on behalf of Hoffman, all defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law, meaning that defendants were of the opinion that no reasonable jury could have found for the Plaintiff based on the available evidence. Of particular note for the purposes of this article, Martinez and Studio Capital, the buyers in the private sale, moved for judgment on the ground that a reasonable jury could not have found that L&M was either acting as their agent or that they were bound by the Letter Agreement. Essentially, Martinez and Studio Capital argued that they could not breach the confidentiality provision of the Letter Agreement because they were not bound by the Agreement in the first place, or were even aware of its existence.

In reviewing the Martinez and Studio Capital motions, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division was faced with two issues: 1) whether there was legally sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to have found that Martinez and Studio Capital conferred actual authority on L&M to enter into the Letter Agreement on their behalf; and 2) whether there was legally sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to have found that L&M had apparent authority to enter into the Letter Agreement on behalf of Martinez and Studio Capital.

The Court, analyzing Texas law on actual authority, noted that “[a]n agent’s authority to act on behalf of a principal depends on some communication by the principal either to the agent (actual or express authority) or to the third party (apparent or implied authority).” (Emphasis added). With respect to apparent authority, the Court noted that “one seeking to charge the principal through apparent authority of an agent must establish conduct by the principal that would lead a reasonably prudent person to believe that the agent has the authority that he purports to exercise.” (Emphasis added).

Martinez and Studio Capital argued that L&M had neither actual nor apparent authority to enter into the Letter Agreement on their behalf. Regarding actual authority, the defendants maintained that L&M acted merely as an intermediary in purchasing the painting. Testimony by Martinez and the Principals of L&M backed up the argument that L&M was never authorized to sign the Letter Agreement on behalf of Martinez or Studio Capital. Hoffman presented several arguments in favor of finding that L&M had actual authority to act as the agent of Martinez and Studio Capital, including that the Letter Agreement itself stated that L&M was acting “on behalf of the buyer.”

On the issue of actual authority, the Court found in favor of Martinez and Studio Capital. Simply put, the Court reasoned that there was no evidence that Martinez or Studio Capital directly communicated to L&M that it had authority to enter into an agreement with Hoffman that would be binding on either Martinez or Studio Capital. Additionally, the Court agreed with testimony of one of the Principals of L&M, who maintained that for private sales such as these, there are typically two transactions taking place; one between the seller and the intermediary and one between the intermediary and the buyer. The Court held that a reasonable jury could not find that either Martinez or Studio Capital communicated to L&M or otherwise implied through its conduct that L&M was authorized to enter into a contract with Hoffman that would be binding on the defendants in perpetuity and impose limits on their rights to alienate their property.

On the issue of apparent authority, the Court ruled that, in order to be liable, Martinez and Studio Capital must have engaged in conduct that reasonably led Hoffman to believe that L&M had this authority. The Court further noted that because neither Martinez nor Studio Capital had any direct interaction with Hoffman or her agent, among other reasons, the evidence did not permit the jury to have found that the defendants held L&M out as their agent. As such, the Court granted the motions of Studio Capital and Martinez and dismissed Hoffman’s claims against them with prejudice.

As of 2 February 2015, the case is still active given that Attorneys for Hoffman appealed the latest ruling dismissing Hoffman’s claims against the purchasers of the Red Rothko. There are, however, already a few important takeaways of which buyers, sellers, and dealers should be aware. One is that sophisticated buyers should be very clear with their dealers and intermediaries who purchase artwork as part of a private sale. An agreement in writing with respect to what the dealer is authorized to do, or not do on behalf of the buyer would, in light of the above case, be prudent. Additionally, buyers should be considerate of what they communicate or promise to a seller in private sales.

Hoffman is represented by Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, L&M Arts is represented by Susman Godfrey LLP, and Studio Capital is represented by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.

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About: Chris Michaels is a litigation attorney in the Philadelphia office of the Atlanta, GA-based law firm, Cruser & Mitchell, LLP, where he actively pursues his interest in the field of art law. He may be reached at (518) 421-7238, chriswmichaels@gmail.com, or on Twitter @CMichaelsartlaw.

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.