Visual Artists Rights Act

Daniel Grant has an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about issues being caused by the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). This is important to appraisers, especially those that deal heavily in contemporary art VARA restriction could potentially impact the value of the work of art based upon ownership, artists rights, condition etc.  An attorney in the article is quoted as saying major effect of VARA has been to inform prospective buyers of art of "recognized stature" that they cannot do whatever they want with the pieces they purchase, because they, too, may find themselves with legal costs.

One way around VARA is when commissioning a work of art, have the artist waive his VARA rights within the contract.

Grant writes:

Artists' moral rights have been enshrined in law for 20 years through the Visual Artists Rights Act, or VARA, which was enacted as an amendment to the U.S. Copyright Code in 1990. VARA prevents the owners of artworks of "recognized stature" from destroying or altering them without the artist's approval. The reason: Unapproved alterations or destruction may damage an artist's reputation. The law establishes mechanisms by which an artist may retrieve a work of art that the owner might otherwise destroy, as well as enables an artist to disclaim ownership of a piece that has been altered. Works of art are also narrowly defined as paintings, drawings or sculptures, as well as graphic and photographic prints in limited editions of 200 or fewer copies.

However, other questions have arisen that were not predicted in 1990. Do artists have the right to stake out where that artwork will be permanently placed? Can artists claim that whatever they make and identify as art has to be treated accordingly? If a damaged artwork undergoes restoration and the artist doesn't like how it was done, can the artist claim the work was "destroyed"?

Back in 1990, it seemed as though the issue was making sure that collectors didn't intentionally damage or destroy significant works that they owned. Those kinds of problems rarely happen, although Mr. Ascalon's Holocaust memorial raises the question of whether making something better actually makes it worse. More often, courtroom judges must reach decisions in cases not necessarily envisioned by lawmakers. Take, for instance, the VARA lawsuit by Swiss installation artist Christoph Buchel against the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.
To read the full WSJ article, click HERE.

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