What is Art Law?

I have been asked numerous times lately to explain “art law” given that I practiced art law and commercial litigation before launching LPDM Fine Art Consulting. At first glance the two component parts of the term, art and law, seem incongruous. Art law, however, is actually a combination of legal concepts geared towards coping with the issues related to art creation, ownership and transactions. Art law is an amalgam of contracts law, trusts and estates law, litigation and statutory law at different levels.

In practice art law specialists are often litigators because many of the legal issues that arise relating to artwork are actually, at their core, adversarial legal disputes. Therefore, the art law group in law firms is often a sub-section of the Litigation Department. These lawyers represent buyers and sellers of artwork in authenticity disputes, for example, or in litigation relating to provenance (examples of this type of dispute include Nazi looted artwork and international antiquities). Other issues that frequently arise are those specifically relating to the artists themselves — art law litigators often represent artists whose work has been stolen (either physically or as a matter of copyright infringement) or who seek to prevent their prior work from being destroyed.

In other instances art lawyers provide more pre-emptive advice. They may advise art sellers how they may conduct sales and how to structure their art business transactions. For example, they may draft an art gallery’s consignment agreement or the terms of sale which appear on each sale invoice. They may also advise a museum as to whether or not it may deaccession a work of art from the permanent collection.

Other non-litigation art lawyers are trust and estates experts who advise visual artists and their estates on taxation and estate planning matters such as setting up foundations and donating works of art to museums.

The clients of an art law specialist range from art buyers or collectors to art dealers, galleries, auction houses, museums and artists themselves. Though many clients seek the advice of their general legal practitioner at first, many disputes are better handled by experts and those who deal with specific fine art related matters. Those matters are best referred to an art law specialist.

Having an art background such as I did before practicing law was incredible helpful to me in understanding my clients’ unique perspectives and the specific kinds of transactions they conduct. Works of art are valuable to people in ways that are not always calculated just as dollars and cents, and that makes the field and practice of art law unique. I am no longer a practicing attorney, having devoted my career full-time to art consulting, but I share this issue with you as it is part of my training.