Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Droit de Suite

A model of an artist's lifetime earnings is incomplete if it ignores complementary investments by early investors in the artist's works: the curators and collectors who buy early works and who work to make sure that it gets in front of the right people in the cultural elite. Unless you're born into an art family, you're just not likely to have the connections necessary for success.

And so I'm pretty sceptical about Droit de Suite - policies that seek to redistribute portions of realized capital appreciation in artworks back to the originating artist. At the margin, they reduce incentives for gallery owners, curators, and collectors to make complementary investments in new artists. What are the distributional effects?

  • A windfall gain in the current period to established artists at the expense of those who made complementary investments in their success;
  • A transfer to those artists who become successful from those who never do;
  • For a successful artist, a transfer of income from when he's young and poor to when he's old and established.
None of these seem particularly desirable. The first has efficiency consequences as well as distributional effects. The latter two turn art into more of a winner-take-all market. Think of a work from a new artist as a lotto ticket that might or might not pay off if an investor makes a pile of ancillary investments. The value of that lotto ticket is lower if the winning tickets are taxed. So the initial price a new artist's works can attract is lower than it otherwise would be. So all new artists earn less on their early works while those who eventually become successful are paid back with interest. But that's when they're already well off and can supplement their income by doodling on folks' napkins at restaurants.

Note further that none of this requires that investors are only in it for the money; they're just less able to afford to keep making those investments where the returns are taxed. It wouldn't be surprising if the insult given by the implicit devaluation of their role were as motivating as the reduction in forward-looking returns. But budget constraints do bind too.

@CherylBernstein points to a newly introduced American bill that would implement Droit de Suite in the U.S.
The Equity for Visual Artists Act of 2011, would set aside 7% of the price for works resold for more than $10,000 at major auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with half the proceeds going to the artists and half to non-profit art museums.
If the portion going to non-profit art museums goes into a common pool rather than to the museum that first exhibited the artist's work, or to the museum of the artist's choosing, recipient museums have free-rider problems in making investments in emerging artists. What do I mean? Consider two non-profit museums. The first makes large investments in figuring out which new artists in the community are worth promoting and works hard to help them become successful; the second spends the same amount of money hosting travelling exhibitions from other galleries. The first museum buys a lot of the emerging artists' work and hopes to use earnings from the small proportion that really pan out to help future emerging artists; the second just banks revenues from travelling exhibitions to fund later hosting of travelling exhibitions. The proposed policy takes money from the first museum and gives it to the second, reducing museums' incentives to invest in new artists.
The legislation, as it stands, would only apply to the resale of works at public auction houses “with more than $25 million in sales in the prior year”. Auction houses that operate only online would be excluded, as would private galleries.
Prediction: more sales shift to online and private galleries from public auction houses. I have no sense of how costly that is in terms of sale revenue foregone, but if most auctions are coordination games, and everyone's making the flip, it's probably not that bad. The big auction houses will be lobbying hard against the legislation and might find it worthwhile to flip to online-only auctions.

Update: Consider now the case in which curators and collectors really have no effect on an artist's success. In that case, the policy still results in reductions in the amount those folks are willing to pay for a new risky artwork and so still effects transfers from those artists who never become successful to those who do and from artists when they're young and poor to when they're old and successful. But there's less efficiency consequence as the ancillary investments by others are of less value.


  1. Artists who produce popular artworks can already reap financial benefits from works sold previously - under copyright legislation. The sale of a painting does not include the right to produce prints (or any other merchandise) of the artwork without the artist's permission and payment of royalties. In NZ for instance copyright (and associated revenues) for a lifetime of paintings by Bill Sutton was gifted to the Christchurch Art Gallery in his will.

  2. Nice point, thanks! I don't know whether reprint rights are bundled with the painting in the US, where this legislation is proposed.