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Artists sue Christie's and Sotheby's for 'resale royalties'

October 18, 2011 |  7:01 pm

Christies
What do New York painter Chuck Close, L.A. artist Laddie John Dill and the estate of L.A. sculptor Robert Graham have in common? They are lead plaintiffs in a pair of class-action lawsuits filed Tuesday against the New York operations of Sotheby's and Christie's, alleging that the auction houses violated the California Resale Royalty Act.

The 1977 California statute, a rare attempt in the U.S. to provide visual artists with a financial cut of appreciating artworks they made but no longer own, grants artists 5% of the proceeds from the resale of their artwork under certain conditions. One is that the seller lives in California or the sale occurs in California. The law applies only to "fine art" -- defined as "an original painting, sculpture, or drawing, or an original work of art in glass." Editioned photographs and prints are not included. The rights provided by the law extend to the artist's heirs for up to 20 years after the artist's death.

Eric M. George of Browne George Ross LLP in L.A. filed the pair of complaints Tuesday in federal court, charging the auction houses with "failure to comply" with the law by not withholding this royalty for the artists and by routinely going out of their way "to conceal the fact of a seller's California residency."

Close, Dill and Graham's estate are plaintiffs named on both suits. The foundation of L.A. painter Sam Francis, who died in 1994, also appears as a plaintiff in the suit against Christie's.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a spokeswoman for Sotheby’s as calling the claim meritless. A spokeswoman for Christie’s told the paper that the auction house looks forward to debating the validity of the law itself in court.

The law, initiated by former California state senator and art collector Alan Sieroty, was inspired by European visual arts royalties like the French "droit de suite"  as well as the entertainment-industry model of residuals. The California Arts Council maintains information about the law on its website, as well as a list of artists that it is seeking for payment. Some artists like Ed Ruscha are known to be scrupulous about collecting their 5% of resales.

But both awareness and enforcement of the law have been spotty for years, which means that the art world will be following these proceedings closely. If successful, these suits could be more than a slap against Christie's and Sotheby's: They could affect how galleries with resale practices throughout California run their business -- or shift that business elsewhere.

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-- Jori Finkel

www.twitter.com/jorifinkel

Photo: In 2000, bids are taken on Claude Monet's 'Nympheas' at Christie's auction house. Credit: Louis Lanzano / For The Times

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