In the United States, the first-sale doctrine prevents artists from profiting from resales of their work, but Europeans have granted droit de suite (French for “right to follow”) to artists for more than a hundred years, partly out of sympathy for starving artists and partly out of respect for intellectual property, notions not so highly regarded by the American legal system.
A couple of weeks ago, Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York vowed to re-introduce his stalled house bill, which he said addressed a “serious lack of equity [in] the distribution of revenue generated by sales and resales of works of art.” The U.S. Copyright Office is expected to issue a report soon and it is likely that the bill, which “would set aside a royalty rate of 7% for resales over $10,000 at large auction houses, half of which would go to the artists, and half to nonprofit art museums,” will be reintroduced this session.
This should be an interesting one to follow. For full details on the bill, there’s an in-depth Art in America article by Tracy Zwick, at the end of which she recounts a famous outburst by Texas artist Robert Rauschenberg. When one of his pieces, which he originally sold for $900, sold at auction fifteen years later for $85,000, he yelled at the seller, “I’ve been working my ass off for you to make that profit!”
P.S. Rauschenberg was no stranger to debt-related ruckuses: During the 1998 exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, fifteen works were confiscated from the Menil Collection for a week over unpaid storage fees. In an even more surreal money fight, heirs to Rauschenberg’s Canyon were sent a $29 million tax bill by the IRS just last year. The 1959 combine includes a stuffed bald eagle (and is, therefore, prohibited by federal law from resale), so the heirs claimed it had zero value. That makes perfect sense and gives a very real meaning to the word “priceless,” but they gave up the fight and ended up donating the work to the MoMA.