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Ronald D. Spencer, a New York attorney whose clients include organizations involving the works of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, said that he “backed into” the art world: “I started out representing ordinary commercial entities, then foundations, then cultural foundations and, finally, foundations with artistic assets.” Despite that roundabout route, Spencer, who studied art as an undergraduate at Brown University, has made the law of art the focus of his practice and of his scholarly publications. “Spencer is one of no more than a dozen people nationwide who specialize in art law,” according to Stephen E. Weil, emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies and the author of multiple books in that area. Earlier this year, Spencer, 61, joined the Wall Street firm Carter, Ledyard & Milburn as counsel. Although he works in the firm’s existing tax-exempt organizations practice, his arrival also prompted the firm to form a new Art Law Practice. “No one works 100 percent on art law,” Spencer said, “but the firm has three or four attorneys who work in and out of that area.” A large part of Spencer’s practice consists of providing artists or their estates with advice about creating and running tax-exempt foundations. Spencer notes that the estate tax can fall particularly hard on successful artists nearing the end of life. His more high-profile work has to do with art authentication. Spencer is particularly proud of a 2000 decision in favor of the Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board that he sees as a vindication of the right of art scholars to express themselves freely. Authentication boards usually consist of scholars who render judgment on works purported to be by a particular artist. The 2000 New York Supreme Court case Lariviere v. Thaw, No. 100627/99, was brought by a collector whose putative Pollock was rendered all but worthless by the board’s judgment that it was a fake. The board prevailed in large part because it had insisted up front that the collector sign an agreement not to sue over the board’s decision. In addition, as Spencer wrote in an article on the case in the IFAR Journal, a publication of the International Foundation for Art Research, the case represented “the first time … that a court has ordered monetary sanctions involving authentication.” Supreme Court Judge Emily Jane Goodman awarded sanctions of $1,000 against both the collector and his attorney for bringing a frivolous claim. It didn’t help the collector’s case, Spencer noted in his article, that the would-be Pollock’s signature was misspelled. In another case involving a painting purported to be by Warhol, Spencer persuaded a disgruntled collector to drop his suit against the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board using the leverage of a similar agreement not to sue. More recently, he advised the owner of a drawing by the French artist who went by the name of Balthus (born Balthazar Klossowski de Rola), who died last year. The work was listed in a Christie’s catalog, but was pulled from the auction when a scholar compiling a Balthus catalog excluded the work on the strength of a letter from Balthus’ family claiming that Balthus, when he was alive, declared it a fake. Spencer says there is reason to doubt the family’s claim, pointing to the 1995 New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division case Arnold Herstand & Co. v. Gertrude Stein Inc., 211 A.D.2d 77, that called into question Balthus’ own repudiation of a drawing. The court noted that Balthus had a reputation for repudiating his works owned by former lovers or dealers with whom he had had disagreements. Meanwhile, Spencer, who collects ancient Chinese ceramics and antique hand-forged ironwork, is preparing a book on the process of art authentication for Oxford University Press. Spencer has written the sections dealing with the legal aspects of that process, and has asked scholars in other fields to present the perspectives of the art dealer, the curator and the art historian. “The Expert vs. the Object — Authentication, Connoisseurship and the Law” is expected to be released later this year.

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