What Is Art Law?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Art law is an area of law pertaining to art, including fine art, performance art, and other modes of artistic expression. Practitioners of this field of law can engage in activities varying from protecting intellectual property to determining ownership of contested pieces, such as art seized in wartime. This field is of interest to museums, conservatories, galleries, and other businesses within the art world, some of which may retain their own legal teams if they have particular concerns about the work in their collections or prospective purchases.

A museum may need legal representation to determine the ownership of a contested piece.
A museum may need legal representation to determine the ownership of a contested piece.

Laws pertaining to art can be complex, especially when art is crossing international borders or is difficult to classify. Attorneys in this field must pursue electives in art law while receiving their legal training, and often take internships in firms concerned with art law and related topics while they are in school. After graduation and successful passage of the bar, attorneys can enter private practice, work for a firm, or work within the legal department at an art-related business.

Art law often deals with intellectual property law regarding the right to use, display, and reproduce works of art.
Art law often deals with intellectual property law regarding the right to use, display, and reproduce works of art.

One important aspect of art law is intellectual property law, concerning who owns the right to use, display, and reproduce art. This can include legal consulting for artists who wish to integrate fair use into their work, such as video artists using clips from other works of art. Intellectual property is particularly important for artists preparing to sell work or rights, as they must make sure their interests are protected in the transaction; a gallery might, for example, have a contract giving it the right to reproduce work without having to pay royalties, and this would be disadvantageous for the artist.

Disputed ownership can also become a topic of interest in this field. Ownership of works of art may be contested for a variety of reasons, ranging from an unclear chain of custody to a history of theft or seizure. This may involve international law as well as diplomacy concerns; when a national museum sues another for return of works in its collection, for example, this can become a complicated negotiation for all parties involved.

Attorneys specializing in art law may also become involved in disputes about censorship of works of art. Galleries that choose to withdraw displays or alter them in some way, such as adding contextual notes to the documentation surrounding a controversial piece, can run legal risks by doing so, as they may violate the legal rights of the artist. Attorneys can act as consultants in these cases to help artists defend their rights or work with galleries to achieve a solution.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Are there any designated art law firms? I love art and I am just starting a pre-law program and I would like to go into art law eventually. How prevalent is this kind of law and what are my chances of being able to practice in the field of my choosing?


I recently read a very interesting book about the estate of Mark Rothko and much of the book was about art law, and the way the art world is subject to a broader class of laws.

Basically, after Rothko died most of his works were seized on by opportunistic dealers who had cheated his family out of his works by having them sign in to vague, very one sided deals. The case was famous in the 70s for the way it revealed what a greedy and cutthroat place the art world can be.

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