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Artists File Lawsuits, Seeking Royalties

Publication Date: 
November 01, 2011
Source: 
The New York Times
Author: 
Patricia Cohen

Professor John Merryman is quoted in the below New York Times article on the California Resale Royalties Act, which is at the center of three class-action suits.

When the taxi baron Robert Scull sold part of his art collection in a 1973 auction that helped inaugurate today’s money-soused contemporary-art market, several artists watched the proceedings from a standing-room-only section in the back. There, Robert Rauschenberg saw his 1958 painting “Thaw,” originally sold to Scull for $900, bring down the gavel at $85,000. At the end of the Sotheby Parke Bernet sale in New York, Rauschenberg shoved Scull and yelled that he didn’t work so hard “just for you to make that profit.”

The uproar that followed in part inspired the California Resale Royalties Act, requiring anyone reselling a piece of fine art who lives in the state, or who sells the art there for $1,000 or more, to pay the artist 5 percent of the resale price.

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John Henry Merryman, a law professor at Stanford University and an expert on art and cultural-property law, said that advocates of the droit de suite ignore how the art market operates. The increased price for Rauschenberg’s “Thaw” at the Scull auction was due not only to the artist’s continuing creative efforts, he said, but also to the dealers, collectors, auction houses and critics who took a risk in supporting and buying Rauschenberg’s work before he was famous. He noted that the increased price for a single painting simultaneously raises the value of all the artist’s work.

Mr. Merryman dismissed the argument that the droit de suite was analogous to music or literary royalties. “The idea that somehow artists are hurt because they don’t have copyright is nonsense,” he said. Artists retain copyright and must be compensated if their work is reproduced. The difference, he explained, is that “the realization of a work of art is in exhibition, not in duplication.”

The Whitney Museum of American Art at one time compensated artists for exhibiting their work. Mr. Merryman said the idea never caught on, but that it made more sense.