The International Art Auction Industry: Has Competition Tarnished Its Finish

Adler, Brenna | January 1, 2003

I argue that a stronger, more cohesive international regulation specially tailored to the auction industry is required in order to keep auction houses from committing unlawful behavior. Auction houses should not be considered merely businesses. Rather, special regulations are needed–regulations that take into account the unique goods that auction houses sell. Part I of this comment will describe auctioneers’ duties to sellers under the law. I will compare and contrast the laws of the United States, the Netherlands, and France and focus on an American case that discusses the breach of an auctioneer’s duty to the seller. Part II will discuss the controversial practices performed and services provided, allegedly under the auctioneer’s duty of agency to the seller, in the United States and abroad. I will discuss how competition between the major auction houses may drive these practices to extremes. Part III will discuss the auctioneer’s duty to the buyer. Again, I will compare the laws of different countries, including the United States, France, and the Netherlands. Part IV will analyze the New York City regulations as an example of the difficult nature of reconciling the auctioneer’s duty to the seller, the buyer and the public while attempting to address the current controversial practices of the auction industry. Part V will discuss the most recent illegal practices performed by the large international auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Part VI will argue that the international community’s failure to regulate the sale of stolen art by private institutions, including auction houses, is evidence of the community’s lack of ability or desire to generally regulate the auction industry. Part VII will discuss the uniqueness of the art auction industry, from the extraordinary works of art it sells, to the glamour and prestige embedded in the industry. Finally, Part VIII will argue for special regulations that recognize and respect the uniqueness of the goods that the auction industry deals in, and attempt to curb the wrongful and illegal behavior of the auction houses.