Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Plain talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

Mursi Saad El-Din It seems that artists are now having a new deal. The European Union is introducing a new law whereby living artists are given a long term stake in the resale rights of their works. Under the proposed law royalties would go to living artists or to their estates for up to 70 years after their deaths.

These proposals have started a controversy, especially in Britain. The British government seems to be adamant in opposing the proposed law on the grounds that it would cost up to 8,500 jobs in London's lucrative art market. Britain's argument is that due to the size of its art market, the law would affect the auction house business since the artists' royalties will be deducted from the prices paid for art works.

Considering the prices paid for art objects, the levy could be enormous. The British government believes that this will result in business moving from Britain to non-European countries to avoid the levy.

According to the proposed law there will be a sliding scale of royalties from four per cent on sales worth up to 32,000 to just 0.25 per cent on the portion of the sale price of a work which exceeds 320,000. Resale rights already exist in 50 countries worldwide as well as 11 members of the European Union.

The European Union Commission estimates that the new law would benefit 250,000 people throughout the union. It would reward artists with a small but fair share in their ongoing success. A commission spokesman said "why should Damien Hirst, David Hockney or Tracey Emin be treated any differently from the Spice Girls or Elton John?"

The law covers pictures, collages, paintings, drawings, engravings, prints, lithographs, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics and photographic works.

In its commentary on this issue, The Independent wrote on 8 December in support of the law. "Whistler was right: artists are more deserving than collectors," is the headline of the commentary. It is hard to see, says the commentary, why artists should be treated any differently from authors and composers. The Paris headquarters of the Copyright and Royalties Organisation is responsible for the payment of dues. It covers all countries which are members, including Egypt. These royalties are paid quarterly and constitute a regular income for authors and composers during their life and for their heirs after their death.

The Independent goes on to say that artists' most valuable works may be made when they are still unknown, "and although artists may be properly grateful to patrons who buy their works for a few hundred pounds, why should the fifth owner of such works be able to sell them for five, six, seven or even eight-figure sums, with no share of the sum going to the artists or their heirs?"

The paper believes that the fear of collectors going outside the European Union to sell the paintings and sculptures can be alloyed by the union "pressing" for similar legislation in America and Switzerland.

In fact one wonders whether such a law can come within the jurisdiction of the World Trade Organisation, to be included in the section concerning copyrights. Films and videos are protected by copyright laws, so why can't works of art enjoy the same protection? Of course the law will need monitoring in its application. I do not know how the copyright headquarters manages to monitor works and collect dues, but I am sure that it can assist in this job.

James McNeil Whistler, the 19th century painter, used to argue that collectors of his pictures were just custodians for future generations. "What was taken to be arrogance in his life time," concludes The Independent, "looks more like foresight in ours."

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