Five Art Law Facts that Art Business Professionals Need to Know


In this series of brief overviews, will distill important art law issues that are often overlooked or misunderstood.  Today's installment will cover the following five topics:  (i) Protection of artists under New York’s amended consignment law; (ii) Commercial laws that protect collectors who buy art from a dealer; (iii) Importance of written contracts; (iv) Statute of limitations for breach of warranty of authenticity; (v) and Conflict of laws concerning ownership of stolen art.

I.  New Precautions Under New York’s Amended Consignment Statute

Dealers doing business in New York are on notice that breach of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law (NYACAL) consignment provisions can now lead to severe penalties, including criminal sanctions.

Effective November 6, 2012, a New York law protects artists and their heirs who consign works of fine art to dealers by strengthening existing trust property and fund provisions of the NYACAL.

The purpose of the consignment laws is to protect artists in cases where a dealer refuses to return an artist’s work or deliver sales proceeds to the artist.  The law also shields artists against claims by the dealer’s creditors, that is, those people to whom the dealer owes money.

Before the law was amended, there was nothing that prevented unscrupulous dealers, such as Salander-O’Reilly (which filed for bankruptcy in 2007), from comingling sales proceeds with their own funds.  The gallery’s creditors attempted to claim the consigned artworks as assets of the bankruptcy estate.  As a result, many clients, including artists’ children, had to buy back their artwork from the bankruptcy estate.

In response to these egregious problems, the law was amended to provide that works of art (and their proceeds) consigned by artists or their heirs to art dealers are deemed property held in “statutory trust.”  As such, the works (and their proceeds) do not become the property of the dealer or the dealer’s.creditors, or subordinate to “claims, liens or security interests” of a dealer’s creditors.  In certain circumstances, the artist may waive the trust fund protection, but the waiver must be clear and conspicuous and in a signed writing.

In addition, dealers are subject to the fiduciary requirements under New York’s Estates, Powers and Trusts Law with respect to consigned works.  These provisions require the dealer to segregate and hold sales proceeds in trust for the artist.  A dealer who violates this provision may be criminally sanctioned and required to pay attorneys’ fees to artists in civil suits.

II.  Commercial Laws Protecting Reasonable Expectations of Buyers

One of the most important questions to ask when purchasing art is whether the work is free and clear of liens or other encumbrances now and in the future.

In the U.S., the Uniform Commercial Code (U.C.C.), enacted in every state including New York, regulates the transfer of art.  Under the U.C.C., purchasers of art acquire all title (that is, ownership rights) to which his transferor had or had power to transfer.  However, two prominent exceptions exist to protect reasonable expectations of buyers: voidable title and entrustment.

Under the voidable title rule, if the original owner has delivered an artwork to a merchant (for example a dealer), who sells the property to a good faith purchaser for value, that purchaser has acquired good title to the artwork, even if it turns out that the transaction was a result of fraud or deceit.  The key is that the original owner voluntarily relinquished possession and intended to transfer title.  For example, suppose A delivers a painting to Dealer to sell to B, who pays with a bad check.  Or Dealer sells to C instead of B.  In either instance, the buyer keeps the work free and clear and A must seek compensation from Dealer.

Similarly, under the entrustment rule, if a person entrusts (voluntarily transfers) possession of an artwork to a merchant (for example, a dealer), and that merchant sells the work to a “buyer in the ordinary course of business,” the buyer can acquire good title (ownership rights) to the artwork.  The entrustment exception applies only to purchasers who are buyers in the ordinary course of business, that is, persons who (i) purchase in good faith, (ii) without knowledge that the sale violates another’s interest, and (iii) in the ordinary course of business from a person (other than a pawnbroker) in the business of selling goods of that kind.

To illustrate entrustment, let’s say A delivers a painting to Dealer, not intending to consign it, but for another purpose, such as to have it restored, framed, or lent to a museum.  Without obtaining A’s permission, Dealer sells the painting to B, a buyer in the ordinary course of business, who is innocent of any wrongdoing.  B can acquire good title to the painting, even though A never intended to sell the painting.

Buyers of art should exercise caution before purchasing significant works of art even when purchasing through a dealer who represents and warrants that the art is free and clear of all liens and will remain so in the future.  Taking precautions, such as checking with the Art Loss Register, searching the U.C.C. databases, and doing a Google search, can often screen for the most likely claims from prior owners, secured creditors, or gifts promised to institutions.

III.  Oral vs. Written Contracts

Since the art world’s culture is based on trust, agreements between artists and dealers are often sealed with a handshake. However, without the benefit of a written document, there is no record of their arrangement, and even a minor problem can sometimes escalate to a major dispute.

Simply put, oral contracts work well until they don’t.  The possibility of misunderstanding over responsibilities and expectations becomes fuel for discord and may cause the relationship to unravel.  An additional consideration is the statute of frauds, which requires that contracts for promises that cannot be fully performed within one year and for sales of goods (not services) of $500 or more be in writing to be enforceable.

The importance of a written contract is illustrated in cases where artists or dealers have tried to enforce terms of an alleged oral agreement.  Because of the statute of frauds and other obstacles, parties to an alleged oral agreement have encountered difficulties in enforcing the agreement’s terms.

An example of an oral contract that went awry concerned an agreement between the legendary American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1987) and her long-time sales agent Doris Bry, for the return of artworks and photographs by her late husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, as well as an accounting of any monies due on sales.  Bry counterclaimed that O’Keeffe had made a number of oral promises, including the promise to make Bry the exclusive sales agent during O’Keeffe’s lifetime and after her death and to appoint Bry as executor of O’Keeffe’s estate.

O’Keeffe sought dismissal of Bry’s counterclaims, alleging they were barred by the statute of frauds.  The court agreed with O’Keeffe, holding that the alleged promises were unenforceable absent a written agreement. O’Keeffe v. Bry, 456 F. Supp. 822 (S.D.N.Y. 1978)

IV.  Statute of Limitations for Breach of Warranty of Authenticity

When a purchaser of an artwork later discovers that the work is not authentic, the statute of limitations under the U.C.C. for a suit against the seller is four years after the breach of authenticity occurs.  (Major auction houses warrant authorship for five years from the date of sale.)

The problem is that few buyers question the authenticity of a work they have acquired until they are preparing to sell it, exhibit it publicly, have it examined by an expert to be included in a catalogue raisonné or for another purpose – which may occur many years after the statute of limitations has expired.  The key question becomes the date that the statute of limitations begins to run – on the date of the seller delivers the work to the buyer, or at the time the buyer discovers the breach of warranty?  In the majority of states, including New York, the breach of warranty begins to run when the seller delivers the work to the purchaser, unless the warranty explicitly extends to “future performance.”

This principle is well illustrated in Rosen v. Spanierman, 894 F.2d 28 (1990), one of the leading cases on warranty of authenticity involving the statute of limitations.  Here, the plaintiffs purchased a painting entitled The Misses Wertheimer from the Spanierman Gallery in New York for $15,000 in 1968.  The gallery provided them with a full warranty on the painting as an original Jean Singer Sargent, and mailed certificates of appraisal for insurance purposes on five occasions between 1975 and 1986.  In 1987, the plaintiffs decided to sell the painting, then valued between $175,000 and $250,000.  Upon consigning the painting to Christie’s, the plaintiffs were informed that it was a fake.

The plaintiffs commenced an action against Spanierman in 1987 for breach of warranty arguing, among other claims, that the repeatedly issued certificates extended the warranty to future performance.  The court rigorously applied the four-year statute of limitations, holding that the warranty did not extend to future performance, and noted that the plaintiffs could have discovered the defect just as easily immediately after the sale as later.  Requiring a purchaser to obtain an appraisal from an expert other than the seller “is not an onerous burden.”

At present, the District Court of Hawaii is the only court in the U.S. to allow a breach of express warranty of authenticity claim beyond the four-year statute of limitations, which tolls the date “until such time as the defect […] was, or reasonably should have been discovered."  Balog v. Center Art Gallery-Hawaii, Inc., 745 F.Supp. 1556 (D. Haw. 1990).

Therefore, buyers of works of art in the U.S. should assume they must bring any authenticity claim within the four-year limitations period.

V.  Stolen Art

In an increasingly global art market, one of the most problematic areas of concern is whether a collector has unwittingly acquired a work that was previously stolen. Courts have vastly different approaches to disputes over ownership to stolen property, and cases may (and often do) depend on technical defenses available in different jurisdictions.

In the U.S., a basic principle is that a thief cannot pass good title, not even to a good faith purchaser, nor can anyone further down the chain of ownership.  Therefore, a good faith purchaser can be forced to surrender an artwork without any compensation to the original owner, absent a valid defense, such as the expiration of the statute of limitations.

By contrast, the civil codes in most continental European countries are more favorable to good faith purchasers, who may acquire good title to stolen artwork after a prescriptive period, that is, the passage of time, which can be a short period.

Therefore, as art owners and their heirs (including claimants of art looted during the Nazi era) come forward, sometimes after many decades, to claim property from good faith purchasers, courts are confronted with difficult questions that are complicated by choice of law and statutes of limitation, and must decide legal title to the work as between the original owner and heir on one hand, and a good faith purchaser on the other.

Because there is no central registry to record title to art, independently verifying the provenance and including strong representations and warranties from the seller with regard to ownership are imperative.  As mentioned above, Art Loss Register is one prominent database.  Others include the FBI and Interpol.  To be sure that a work was not stolen during the Nazi era, buyers should check databases, such as http://www.lostart.de/Webs/DE/Start/Index.html, http://www.lootedart.com/ and http://www.artrecovery.com/. Another database, http://icom.museum/spoliation.html, provides links to databases of individual countries for the identification and return of looted or stolen Jewish property.  Another way for collectors to reduce risk is to obtain title insurance, which is now available for fine art and other important collectibles.  

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