A recent court case in New York has reinforced the importance of the often overlooked issue of artists’ moral rights.
The rights proved central to a
decision in November by the New York Supreme Court to refuse
permission for Manhattan art gallery Marc Janou Fine Art to sue
Sotheby's for breach of contract after the auction house withdrew a
work of art consigned by the gallery just before it was due to be
offered for sale.
It was reported that Sotheby's
withdrew the work after the artist, Cady Noland, disowned the work,
Cowboys Milking, following the discovery of what she
deemed to be damage that put it beyond repair.
ATG understand that a separate lawsuit
between the gallery and the artist over the issue has yet to be
settled, but the court considered that the artist's decision to
have her name removed from association with the work effectively
changed its attribution, allowing Sotheby's to withdraw the work
from sale in accordance with the auction house's consignment terms
and conditions that cover such eventualities.
It was also noted that Sotheby's had
tried to persuade Noland to change her mind and that Christie's had
previously declined to offer the work for the same
What gave Noland the power to intervene in
the agreement between the gallery and the auction house to sell the
work was the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990, whose provisions
include "the right to prevent use of one's name on any work that
has been distorted, mutilated, or modified in a way that would be
prejudicial to the author's honor or reputation".
Similar rights are extended to artists
under the UK's Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The case provides a useful reminder
that ownership of a work of art brings responsibilities as well as
rights with it. The artist retains not just the copyright itself,
but also the right not to have their work subjected to derogatory