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Collector's Roundtable: Art and the Law
December 9, 2008

Joshua Kaufman

Joshua Kaufman

Who'd have thought that spending an hour and a half with a lawyer could be so entertaining? Local attorney Joshua Kaufman of Venable LLP enlighted the audience at American Art the other night on the legal issues of acquiring, owning, inheriting, and selling art, from the big picture to the fine print. (You know, the stuff that none of us really reads but should.) He even treated us to a Soprano-esque impression of a witness on the stand testifying in a case that involved a stolen Jasper Johns.

Kaufman's talk, "Cutting Through the Legalese: What Every Collector Should Know," took the audience into the backrooms of galleries, auction houses, museums, and even a courthouse or two, to explain the complexities in the seemingly simple acts of buying and selling art. "The art business is unique," Kaufman said, "in terms of paperwork and due diligence. It has the least amount of paper of any commercial transaction." That means you go into a gallery, buy what you like, and the dealer hands you a receipt for your purchase. Perhaps you even get a little paper describing the provenance.

But buyer beware! The art market is filled with complexities, especially when it comes to auction houses. When Kaufman first started in the art world more than twenty years ago, "the auction houses were the wild west. If you wanted respectability, you went to a dealer." He gave us one example of a D.C. auction house selling a piece of 1791 Pennsylvania Shaker furniture to Bill Cosby for $21,000. Turns out, the piece was from 1921. But hey, what's a few years? When Cosby refused to pay, the auction house actually sued him and he called in Kaufman to represent him. The long and the short of it is that after a few years the case was heard by the D.C. Court of Appeals; the judges ruled in Cosby/Kaufman's favor by a vote of three to zero.

After taking questions from the audience, Kaufman left us with his four maxims for acquiring and collecting art: Buy Smart; Know Your Rights; Protect Your Investment; and Donate Art to This Museum!

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Posted by Howard on December 9, 2008 in Lectures on American Art


Thank you for this summary. I am sorry I missed the round table discussion per se. Was it recorded anywhere? Did Kaufman comment on legalities relating to the Indian Art and Craft Act? Protect the authenticity of Native American Indian and Alaskan art seems to be ignored for the most part.

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