The fight to obtain resale royalties for visual artists may be gaining momentum thanks to the newly introduced American Royalties, Too (ART) Act of 2014, but the major auction houses are determined to stop it. The ART Act, which was introduced in Congress last month as a reincarnation of the stalled Equity for Visual Artists Act, would introduce a compulsory artist resale royalty (also known as or droit de suite) on auction transactions over $5,000.
While the US copyright office now supports the idea, and famous artists including Chuck Close and Frank Stella have come out in favor of it, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have begun spending significant amounts of money to lobby against it, the New York Times reported over the weekend.
The Times estimates that Sotheby’s and Christie’s have spent “about $1 million in the last couple of years” to lobby against the artist resale royalty efforts; our own count, using the Center for Responsive Politics’s OpenSecrets.org, puts that total at $890,000 over the course of 2012–13. Both houses saw a big jump in lobbying money in 2012: Christie’s went from zero spending in 2011 to $180,000 in 2012, then to $240,000 last year, while Sotheby’s also seems to have spent nothing in 2011, before pouring in $230,000 in 2012 and $240,000 last year. Based on the information on Open Secrets, nearly all of that went to fighting the Equity for Visual Artists Act of 2011 and “Artists Resale Royalty Issues.”
At the same time, as the Times points out, droit de suite might not have even returned to the political fore if not for lobbying — the Artists Rights Society and the Visual Artists Rights Coalition have been hiring gunners for copyright issues for the past six years. The former spent $83,000 over a period of 2008–10, and the latter has spent a much more vigorous $437,000 since 2010. (Though ARS’s connection to the issue isn’t entirely clear, beyond a perhaps moral responsibility to advocate for the rights of artists.)
Importantly, the Times notes that the ART Act incorporates changes from the Equity for Visual Artists Act, made in response to auction house criticisms — namely, that the resale royalty applies only to public auction transactions and not to gallery or private sales. In an effort to broaden the scope, the new legislation now covers online auctions, which has had the effort of pitting eBay and the Internet Association against it. According to Open Secrets, those groups far outspend any of the art-world players in their lobbying efforts — eBay dropped some $2.2 million on lobbying last year, including for something called the “Saving High Tech Innovations From Egregious Legal Disputes Act” — which could mean a serious fight for ARS and the coalition. Especially if relatively new art seller Amazon decides to enter the fray; they spent nearly $3.5 billion on lobbying in 2013.