Authentication, an Elephant and Buying Work Online: Why Art Law Matters

Wednesday this week saw the opening of a new play, Banksy: The Room in the Elephant, at the Edinburgh Festival, and the annoucement of the launch of the latest string to mega-merchant Amazon’s bow: Amazon Art.

The play, written by Tom Wainwright and directed by Emma Callander, is a reworking of the real-life story of a man evicted from his self-built home in a water tank in LA after street artist Banksy daubed the caption ‘THIS LOOKS A BIT LIKE AN ELEPHANT’ along its side. Not long after an image of the work appeared on Banksy’s website, the tank’s owners, spotting an opportunity to make some money, removed it from the Californian hillside where it had sat for nearly a decade. In so doing they made homeless the 54-year-old man who had been living inside the tank for seven years. When he heard what had happened, Banksy paid for the man to live rent- and bill-free in a local apartment for 12 months. And, to teach the tank’s owners a lesson, he removed the image of the tank from his website and turned down their subsequent request for a certificate of authentication, rendering the piece worthless.

The latest venture from e-commerce giant Amazon is an online art marketplace. To date, over 150 galleries from across the USA have signed up to place art on the new site, meaning that at the time of its launch, it will feature around 40,000 original and limited-edition works by artists including Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali. Selling art online to buyers who have never seen the works in person is not new. Christie’s runs online-only auctions and many commercial galleries likewise have sites dedicated to web sales. What might prove different about Amazon’s art platform is its ability to ‘democratise’ somewhat the buying and selling of art;  it has the potential, at least, to reach new audiences and to offer artists and smaller galleries a shot at selling to collectors who would never set foot in their studios and showrooms.

So far, so newsworthy. But placed side by side, these events point to the wider shifts taking place in a world that historically has been reluctant to change its ways. And these 21st-century shifts – the constant development of fresh modes of making and dealing art – require legal regimes and jurisprudence which are equally dynamic. In her new book, Visual Arts and the Law, internationally acclaimed lawyer Judith B. Prowda provides readers with the necessary context and insights to understand why this is. Following an introductory chapter which establishes a legal definition of art, the book’s structure traces the artwork’s lifecycle, examining in turn and in depth those aspects of law which affect the creation of art, art’s primary market and secondary art sales. International in scope and filled with lively examples, Prowda’s text is unequivocal in its articulation of law’s importance to the successful functioning of today’s art world. For those still in doubt, the headlines will continue to deliver up further proof – and perhaps even in time further plays…

Celia Dunne, Publishing Assistant