Breach of trust? Artists try to block sales of works given as gifts


Recent disputes between artists, foundations and consignors are drawing attention to the often ill-defined rules governing the sale of art given as a gift by the artists who made them.

It is a sensitive issue, and one that art businesses are handling in different ways. At the request of the Richard Avedon Foundation, Christie’s declined to sell a work by the late artist in October. The work was an edition of Avedon’s photograph of the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, worth an estimated $15,000, which the foundation said had been given as a gift to Nureyev and not intended for sale. Christie’s and the Richard Avedon Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

The artist Richard Prince disavows works he has given to people who later try and sell them at auction, says the art adviser Todd Levin, the director of the Levin Art Group. “It’s very common with Prince’s Cowboy works,” he says. “He printed them in editions of two, with an artist proof, but occasionally he would print an additional one and give it to, for example, a printer who had done a good job. Later some of those people tried to take the works to auction.” None of the works made it to the block because Prince refuses to authenticate them. Prince did not respond to a request for comment.

The painter Natalie Frank says she was “shocked and hurt” to discover that her former dealer Jay Gorney had put a work of hers, given to him when she was in her 20s, up for auction. “It would have been much more respectful if he had considered offering it back to me or the galleries I work with so they could have the chance to buy it or sell it privately”, she says.

The drawing, One Train May Hide Another II (2006) went unsold at its initial offering at Phillips in September; Gorney then consigned it to the online auctioneer Paddle8 for sale in December. Frank asked Paddle8 to withdraw the work on the grounds that it was a gift from her to Gorney, and that it should not have been re-offered. Paddle8 did not withdraw the work, but it did not sell. A spokeswoman says the company is considering including “right of first refusal” clauses into its contracts, which would require consignors to offer a work back to the artist or gallery before auctioning it. Gorney and Phillips did not respond to requests for comment.

While few dispute the legal right of an owner to sell a work, some say there are unspoken rules that govern the sale of gifts. “There needs to be a good reason to give up such a personal offering in such a public forum”, says the art adviser Liz Parks. Todd Levin disagrees: “If you decide to give it away, you’re giving it away. The piece doesn’t come with an umbilical cord.”