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Mary Pratt (left) and former Governor General Adrienne Clakson in front of the official portrait of Clarkson after an unveiling ceremony at Rideau Hall in 2007. (CP)
Mary Pratt (left) and former Governor General Adrienne Clakson in front of the official portrait of Clarkson after an unveiling ceremony at Rideau Hall in 2007. (CP)

Visual Arts

Visual artists seek a percentage of resale riches Add to ...

When Sotheby's holds its fall auction of Canadian art in Toronto next month, the lots will include a small painting of a vegetable marrow by the Newfoundland artist Mary Pratt. It is signed by the artist, dated to 1966 and marked with a price on the back: $50.

Fifty 1966 dollars are the equivalent of $332.10 today. If you had socked them away in a savings certificate that made five per cent interest a year, you would now have $449.19. If you had been a savvy investor who made 10 per cent a year, you would have $3,998.97 - a tidy sum.

But Sotheby's is expecting that a bidder will pay $10,000 to $15,000 for that painting, an early example of Pratt's well-loved domestic still-lifes. That's 200 to 300 times the original sale price.

Should the 75-year-old Pratt, who suffers from dry eyes and a twisted spine and whose doctor will only let her paint two hours a day, get a share of such incredible appreciation in value?

"When you see that other people are profiting from the physical effort you made, it gives you pause to think," says Pratt, who used to paint 12 hours a day. "… As an artist, I was lucky enough to see the world in a way others don't. That was enough for me, but now I am not so sure."

In 59 other countries including most of Europe, Pratt would get a small percentage (from a fraction of one per cent to five per cent, depending on the sale price) of the hammer price of her resold painting thanks to a principle known as " droit de suite," or the artist's resale right.

The right, which has existed in France for decades but was only introduced to the U.K. in 2006, means that an artist, who has previously sold works for low prices, can profit from rising prices on subsequent sales of those pieces. The law applies after death too, so that an artist's heirs would get a share until copyright expires, 75 years after death in most of these countries.

"The whole value of an art work is not made on the original sale," said April Britski, national executive director of the Canadian Arts Representation (CARFAC). "Visual artists are at a great disadvantage compared to writers or musicians who keep getting money from recordings or books. [With art,]you sell it once and it's gone." Britski said the right would be particularly valuable to older artists and to Canada's aboriginal artists, who may sell works for much less than urban collectors eventually pay for them. Australia has just adopted the right specifically to address the exploitation of its aboriginal artists.

CARFAC, which lobbies for visual artists' rights, has been pressing politicians to add a five-per-cent resale right to proposed amendments to Canada's copyright legislation. But so far it has not succeeded in getting it included in Bill C-32, which goes to second reading next week. Still, the organization hopes that ongoing trade negotiations between Canada and the European Union will keep the issue alive, because European countries that pay all artists for resale rights, regardless of nationality, would want to see other art markets reciprocate. (Roy Christensen, press officer for the delegation of the European Union to Canada, declined to comment on the role copyright issues are playing in those negotiations.)

Canadian auction houses react to the scheme with caution.

"From a philosophical standpoint, I don't have a problem," said David Heffel, president of the national auction house Heffel. "But from a business standpoint I have doubts the government can create something that doesn't put the onus on the small-business owner." Heffel wondered what percentage of the money would actually make it back to the artist after administration costs had been covered.

But Britski said CARFAC could act as the central registry and collecting agency.

"Generally speaking, artists don't make a lot of money and every little bit helps," she said. "It would be nice to get something that doesn't depend on government money but is based on their own success."

With research from Rick Cash

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