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Stephen Weil to Speak on "Art and the Law: An Unnatural Coupling?" Oct. 4


Stephen E. Weil, emeritus senior scholar with the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, will speak on "Art and the Law: An Unnatural Coupling?" on Friday, October 4, at 4:00 p.m., in Room 127. The talk is a part of Alumni Weekend 2002 and is free and open to the public.


Stephen E. Weil, emeritus senior scholar with the Smithsonian Center, says that several characteristics of art lead to unique problems when works of art become entangled in the courts. In his talk on Friday, October 4, he will outline several of the most common.

"Because art is so portable," says Weil, "when you get disputes over it, you will quite often have bodies of law from several different countries being inter-braided together, which makes for some choice-of-law problems and some very tricky outcomes.... Art works are very hardy and live a long time, and so you may have facts in cases that go back many hundreds of years, and they're quite unlike other cases in that regard."

He says that his approach in his talk will be anecdotal rather than theoretical, and he will provide examples for each category. For instance, he will discuss the case of an organization in Poland that is trying to recover a collection of drawings by Albrecht Dürer that were scattered after World War II. The drawings have been in existence for around 500 years and are as valued and coveted today as ever. Furthermore, Weil explains, "just within the last hundred years, they have been subject to the jurisdiction of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Poland after World War I, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the Ukraine, and now most of them are in the West."

Weil is a leading scholar and practitioner of art law. He co-wrote the treatise Art Law: Rights and Liabilities of Creators and Collectors, which won the 1987 Scribes Book Award. He has also authored several books on museums, art, and the law, most recently Making Museums Matter. He served as the deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution from 1974 to 1995, and before that was the administrator of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Weil will finish his speech by discussing the upcoming Supreme Court case Eldred v. Ashcroft, which challenges the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act. Weil explains that copyright law is critical to the intersection of law and art, because "Artists to an enormous extent build on the work of other artists, and if they are prevented from doing so, a great deal of their creativity is cut off."

By the conclusion of his speech, Weil may challenge the title of the speech, "Art and the Law: An Unnatural Coupling?" He says, "Art and the law both deal with ways in which you combine order and disorder in some kind of fruitful tension."

And, there's one other advantage Weil cites in coupling art and law together: "My own theory is that very dull legal issues become memorable when they revolve around art. You can take the typical art law case, and drop the art out, and make it a case about widgets, and it would be totally dull. But you make it about a lost Dürer drawing and it becomes very exciting."