New law shields artworks from alteration by buyers

November 25, 1990|By Daniel Grant

It probably doesn't occur to many art collectors to purposefully alter, mutilate or destroy a work of art they've purchased, but it has happened occasionally. It's happened, for instance, to the creations of sculptors Alexander Calder, Isamu Noguchi and David Smith as well as painters Arshile Gorky and Pablo Picasso.

Under the new Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, passed in the waning hours of the 101st Congress last month, it may be less likely to happen in the future: Mutilation or destruction of an artist's work (to which the creator owns the copyright) would be considered an infringement of copyright, with artists able to sue for both compensatory (out-of-pocket) and statutory (up to $10,000) damages as well as actual damages.

Those actual damages refer to harm caused an artist's professional reputation by the destruction or distorted appearance of his or her work.

Similar laws already exist in about a dozen states, though not iMaryland.

There have been very few lawsuits filed under any of the state laws but, according to John Podesta, attorney for National Artists Equity Association, "the examples of damage . . . are of such importance to the arts community that there has been a lot of calls for protecting artists' work."

This law was written quite narrowly, only applying to painters and sculptors as well as to printmakers and fine art photographers who produce limited editions of their work -- 200 or fewer copies.

One aspect of the law of particular interest to muralists and wall sculptors concerns artwork that is attached to a building, and there are special rules that balance the rights of artists and property owners. The owner of a building on which artwork is attached is required to notify the creator that the work should be removed, if it can be removed.

The artist then has 90 days in which to remove the artwork (at his or her own expense), at which point the creator regains title to the piece.

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