Art law team can benefit firm

By Christine Simmons
The Daily Record Newswire
ST. LOUIS — When American artist Robert Rauschenberg died in 2008, he left behind a large personal art collection, a company holding his artworks, properties in Florida and New York and a private foundation.

Darryl Pottorf, formerly his assistant, became the executor of his estate. Now, affairs of the estate are winding down, primarily in a probate court in Florida.

Pottorf, himself an artist, has turned to Bryan Cave lawyers to represent him in his compensation as executor and in a dispute involving trustees’ fees.

Pottorf’s attorney, B. John Readey, in Kansas City, is a trust and estates lawyer and a member of the firm’s “art law” practice. Bryan Cave formed an art law practice recognizing that clients prefer attorneys who have experience in the niche area of business. The practice also can benefit the firm.

The law firm group’s co-leader, Scott Hodes in Chicago, said the art law team likely has handled twice as much work in art-related fields as the law firm did before it formed the practice group in 2007.

Coco Soodek, a Chicago lawyer and leader of the Bryan Cave practice, said the organization of a team in art law helped the firm take care of matters for existing clients “that they didn’t know we could take of before.”

“In the past, they would have looked for a lawyer in a boutique firm,” she said.

About 40 lawyers make up the firm’s art law team, with various backgrounds such as litigation, contracts, estate work, intellectual property, banking and employment. They also practice within their traditional service areas.

Art law teams are uncommon among large law firms, but Bryan Cave has some company. Fulbright & Jaworski, Fox Rothschild, and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton are among major law firms that promote their art law expertise.

A law firm practice set up to help clients in the arts isn’t only a marketing strategy, said Eric Seeger, a law firm consultant at Altman Weil in Philadelphia.

“Clients like their lawyers to be able to demonstrate a deep knowledge of the client’s business,” Seeger said. “And law firms like when a client’s business spans multiple practices, so this is an arrangement that can benefit both parties.”

Firms, of course, don’t need specialized practices to land large art-related deals. Lawyers for Lathrop & Gage, which lists only traditional practice groups, were central in negotiations for the new Kauffman Center for Performing Arts in Kansas City.

As the principal development attorney for the center, Lathrop’s Jerry Riffel represented PAC Holdings Inc. in negotiating and drafting the development agreement with the city for the center, which opened in September.

Another Lathrop attorney, Peter Brown, was the principal attorney on corporate and benefactor issues.

Steven Braun, who practices in the eight-attorney Kansas City firm Krigel & Krigel, isn’t worried about large firms stealing his business. He has represented people in buying and selling art for the past 15 years.

“There’s plenty of work out there,” he said.

And for low-income artists and art groups, hundreds of Missouri lawyers are on the referral lists at Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts organizations in St. Louis and Kansas City.

Executive directors of the organizations say the lawyers don’t necessarily have a niche practices in art law, but their pro bono work for artists and art organizations relates to their practice fields.

Many of them work in intellectual property, contracts and real estate.

The need for a specialized set of lawyers for artists is stronger than ever, as the business of art is now global, Hodes said.

Decades ago, a patron or artist could shake a dealer’s hand to finish a transaction, he said. “There was no paper and it was done. In today’s world, it’s highly commercial and everything basically needs to be documented.”

Interactions between multiple parties in the business, from the artist, to the purchaser, to the auction, to the collector, to the museum, have made for more complex paperwork and sometimes litigation, Hodes said.

“There all kinds of facets to the business of art law,” he said, “but to be a good art lawyer you have to understand how all those facets fit together” in a business context.

Working in many mediums, Rauschenberg painted, sculpted, designed sets, choreographed and photographed.

He incorporated uncommon objects into his art, such as furniture or objects found on the street. Wildly popular, his works have sold for millions of dollars.

Readey’s client, Pottorf, is one of three trustees of Rauschenberg’s revocable trust. Readey is representing him in an application to determine his compensation as a trustee.

Assets of the trust, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, eventually will transfer to Rauschenberg’s foundation.

First, they need to sort out trustees’ fees. The trustees want $60 million split between the three of them, while the foundation says they deserve “a minimal amount,” Readey said.

The foundation and the trustees are asking a Lee County, Fla., court to help determine the trustees’ fees, he said.

Readey and a firm lawyer in Atlanta, Nicole Wade, are also representing Pottorf in his application for executor compensation.

Readey said his past experience in understanding how art valuations work has helped him in the Rauschenberg case.

“I don’t pretend to be an expert in that [valuations], but it has its own peculiarities,” he said.

Bryan Cave attorneys say they can represent a variety of art professionals and organizations, from artists, galleries, publishers and exhibitors to purchasers, collectors, museums and auction houses.

Only lawyers with prior experience in art-related matters are on the team, said Hodes.

“It’s extremely important for [a lawyer] to know his client’s business,” he said. “He or she has to understand the commercial business of art. That comes from years of experience of dealing with the art field and knowing how the art business works.”

Hodes said he has talked to dealers, traveled to exhibitions and been exposed to art law throughout his practice. “It’s like learning a business,” he said.

He has represented Christo and his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, the artists who have created works of art on sprawling landscape and urban environments.

When the artists were preparing for their 1977-78 exhibit in Kansas City’s Jacob Loose Memorial Park, in which they covered park paths with nylon fabric, Hodes worked on
their contracts with various government entities and insurers.

Since then, Hodes said he has acted like a “general counsel” to Christo, handling contracts and working with local lawyers for his art work.

Want to get involved in art law? There aren’t many seminars or classes devoted to it, Readey said. Lawyers indicate that you need to find and learn the business yourself.

“It’s self taught. It’s basically an offshoot of contract law, and it’s just a unique world as to how transactions are done,” Braun said. “You need to know private collectors, their needs, dealers, brokers, experts, museums:  everyone who participates in some phase in buying, selling and authenticating and valuing works of art.”

Even if lawyers just represent one of the parties, Braun said, knowing all of the players in the game helps in deciding what their clients need “to protect themselves and to get the deal the deal done.”

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