Famous Paintings Sell For Millions At Auction, But The Artist Gets Zero Unlike novelists and musicians, visual artists don't get royalties for their work. New legislation aims to fix this by taxing public sales, but auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's oppose the idea.
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Famous Paintings Sell For Millions At Auction, But The Artist Gets Zero

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Famous Paintings Sell For Millions At Auction, But The Artist Gets Zero

Famous Paintings Sell For Millions At Auction, But The Artist Gets Zero

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Elvis Presley goes on sale tonight; so does Marlon Brando. OK, their images go on sale at Christie's Auction House in New York. Both are silk screens by the late Andy Warhol. In the 1970s, a German casino bought both of these works for $185,000. Tonight, they're expected to go for $100 million or so. Andy Warhol's estate will not see any of that money because unlike musicians or novelists, visual artists do not earn royalties beyond the first sale. That's the custom now. As Eric Molinsky reports from New York, that could soon be changing.

ERIC MOLINSKY, BYLINE: In 1973, a team of documentary filmmakers was following a major collector of American pop art, Robert Scull. And they captured this legendary moment at a Christie's auction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT SCULL: Robert, how are you? Nice to see you.

MOLINSKY: Scull was greeting the artist Robert Rauschenberg. Fifteen years earlier, he'd bought one of his paintings for $900. That day, it was being auctioned for $85,000, a windfall for the collector. Rauschenberg was not happy.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG: I've been working my ass off for you to make that profit?

SCULL: How about yours? You're going to sell now. I've been working for you, too. We work for each other.

MOLINSKY: Scull was arguing that the sale would benefit the artist, if not directly, then by boosting his reputation. Rauschenberg did not see it that way. He spent years lobbying Congress to get royalties for artists when their works are sold down the line. Now there's a bill in Congress called ART, American Royalties Too. If the bill passes, 5 percent of every auction sale will go to the artist or their descendants, with a cap of 700,000. The bill is being sponsored by New York Congressman Jerry Nadler.

REPRESENTATIVE JERRY NADLER: Back in 1992, the copyright office looked into this whole matter and came out against it.

MOLINSKY: Then, Australia and the U.K. passed similar laws in favor of artists, which got the attention of the copyright office again.

NADLER: Earlier this year, having taken a fresh look at it and looking at what other countries have done and how it's worked out, they said that this would be advantageous for the United States.

MOLINSKY: And Nadler says the bill may escape partisan gridlock.

NADLER: Intellectual property is a very unusual area in Congress. You - as a general rule, you cannot predict where someone is going to be on an issue like this or on music licensing by knowing if he's a Democrat or Republican.

MOLINSKY: Christie's and Sotheby's would not agree to an interview. They're lobbying to kill the bill. That upsets the artist Frank Stella, whose work has been auctioned for millions.

FRANK STELLA: When the auction houses are against the resale right, there's a kind of not very nice preemptive stance saying that the artist doesn't count, only the collector and the auction house. I think it's not right.

MOLINSKY: But some artists are against the bill. Loren Munk says that it would give money to a top echelon of artists that are already very successful - or dead. He also worries that the law could discourage collectors from investing in mid-level artists.

LOREN MUNK: Artists are like whores. A lot of them are like old - old whores on the street.

MOLINSKY: Who would be worried about scaring away potential clients.

MUNK: I know that it doesn't take much for people to decide that something is just a little bit too much trouble to have to deal with. Or if they're going to have to deal with that kind of problem, better to go with something safe.

MOLINSKY: Another concern is that royalties could drive collectors away from auction houses towards galleries and private sales, which are exempt in the bill. Guy Rub is a professor of law at the University of Ohio. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say that Guy Rub is a law professor at the University of Ohio. He's at Ohio State University.]

GUY RUB: Auctions, at least, are public. The information is public. So one of the problems with the art market is that there's a lot of secrecy there. And that's not good to any market. It's not horrible, but it's not good.

MOLINSKY: By some estimates, the ART Act appears to have a slim chance of passing, although it might get tucked into a bill that deals with larger copyright issues. For NPR News, I'm Eric Molinsky.

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