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 reason.

Legal Rights

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 treatment.