As Chuck Close and a group of other artists wage a legal battle against Sotheby’s and Christie’s, alleging that the houses owe them hundreds of thousands of dollars under a California resale royalties law, the Visual Artists and Galleries Association (VAGA), a nonprofit group that defends the intellectual property of its more than 6,000 international artists, is lobbying for the passage of a federal royalties law that might resolve the issue for future resales.
“Class-action suits take a long time, and it is possible that the artists could lose the case,” VAGA director Robert Panzer told Gallerist by telephone today. “The solution to the problem is a federal law.” (Despite its title, VAGA no longer works with galleries, Mr. Panzer said.) No date has been set for introducing the legislation, though the group has been working to draft a bill, which it hopes will be introduced soon.
Some legal experts believe that the California law, which requires sellers to pay five percent of a sale price to the artist in some circumstances, is unconstitutional, since it covers transactions that take place outside of the state, potentially meaning that it represents an overreach of state power.
A federal law will also have to jump some constitutional hurdles, and opposition from some collectors, dealers and auction houses. Many are likely be against such a measure since it would cut into potential profits from selling work. Opponents argue that artists already benefit from secondary market sales because such transactions help burnish artists’ careers, and raise the price of primary market work.
“This will allow the market to reimburse the artist, rather than having the government do it through grants, as they do in Europe,” Mr. Panzer told us, of his organization’s support for the law.
Mr. Panzer noted that most European countries have adopted resale statutes (also known as droit de suite), which require some percentage of a secondary-market sale to be returned to an artist. Because the U.S. does not have a similar law, American artists are not currently allowed to collect those royalties.
“It makes sense for the U.S. to have copyright laws that are similar to those of Europe,” the director said. “We are trying to harmonize the rules here.”
Mr. Panzer said his group wants artists to receive “a decent percentage,” though the exact details of the bill are still being decided. He added, “You want it to get real money for people, otherwise it just becomes an administrative problem.” The bill may also include a provision that will set aside a percentage for museums.
Asked about the possibility of the measure passing and making its way into law, Mr. Panzer sounded optimistic. “Congress has historically been in favor of things that help media,” Mr. Panzer said. “I hope they will recognize that what artists create is intellectual property, and that is what drives our country right now.”