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She Lays the Law Down--Artfully : Books: Attorney Jessica L. Darraby draws on her passion and her profession to write an accessible treatise on art litigation.

September 06, 1995|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Once upon a time, art had little to do with law, says Los Angeles attorney Jessica L. Darraby. As recently as 1988, when she began teaching art law as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Darraby had difficulty coming up with enough cases to compile a useful reference book for her students. But today, "court dockets and courtrooms are filled with art litigants," she notes in the preface of her weighty treatise, "Art, Artifact & Architecture Law."

Among reasons for the dramatic change, "diverse materials and products never before considered art are being preserved for posterity and designated for special handling under legal protection schemes," Darraby writes. "Art, architecture and artifact are now accorded a legal status of cultural preciousness formerly associated with the sublime, the extraordinary or the antique.

"Legislative machinery from local to federal levels has spewed more words on art regulation than a laser printer run amok. Administrative agencies nationwide have implemented dozens of art programs with far-reaching implications. Developers and governmental groups have mapped the country with public art, triggering laws that implicate perpetual custodial care. Prosecutors, assisted by law enforcement, have rerouted trading patterns, exposing the permeable borders between licit market practices and black markets. Corporate America has capitalized on its role as arts sponsor, patron, collector and connoisseur, thereby wielding power in ways that portend constitutional challenge and impose costs upon use of the visual landscape."

Another important factor in the astonishing rise of art litigation, Darraby says in an interview, is that speculators jumped into the art market during the boom of the late 1980s and got burned a few years later when they tried to bail out. They were unfamiliar with the art world, but they knew their way around the legal system and put it to use.

"In an expanding economy, when people aren't concerned about money, they don't care if they lose a few thousand dollars on a painting, but when there's a shortage of money, everybody sues," she says.

Darraby's book tackles a subject that causes most arts professionals to run for cover or nod off. But her red-covered tome offers hope of getting a grip on an enormously complex field. Publisher Clark Boardman Callaghan is touting the work as "the first of its kind to link procedure, substance and evidence--and to present an integrated analysis of the social, policy, economic and cultural issues so crucial to arts transactions and litigation."

Intended as a user-friendly aid to legal practitioners and the art crowd, the book offers definitions of art terms such as provenance, catalogue raisonne and attribution , and a diagram of how fine art prints are made, as well as insights into the legal mysteries of copyrights and using art as collateral.

Darraby offers an overview of fundamentals of art law and a summary of trade practices, then explores a vast array of subjects including auctions, international trade, art fraud and statutes governing archeology, historic preservation and conservation. And that is only the beginning. She is already at work on the first set of annual updates.

The treatise is a labor of love and a source of pride to a Canadian-born attorney who claims a lifelong interest--but no talent--in art. Her family was generously supplied with Sunday painters, she says, so her passion came naturally.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1970 to study at UCLA, then did graduate work at Oxford and UC Berkeley, earning her law degree at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law in 1979. Although she concentrated on law, she studied art history extensively. Darraby became a business litigator in a Los Angeles law firm, but when the company dissolved in 1984 she opened a contemporary art gallery on Melrose Avenue instead of looking for another job in law.

"After five years in practice, I decided to do something I loved," she says.

While showing and selling artworks, Darraby became aware that art law was growing into a field that could offer both opportunities and challenges. She closed the gallery in 1988, and began teaching at Pepperdine's pioneering art law program. One of a handful of attorneys in the country who specialize in art law and even fewer who make it a full-time occupation, Darraby is an expert witness for art cases in state and federal courts, writes a column on art law for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, serves as counsel for ArtTable Inc., a national organization for women in the arts, and lectures on art law. Her next speaking engagement is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Nov. 9.

As her career has blossomed, Darraby has watched her specialty branch out from relatively simple matters of taxes and charitable contributions into dozens of directions. One aspect that particularly interests her is the effect of new technology on the reproduction and distribution of art images.

"There are important issues about access to art, who has access, and who controls it," she says.

But whatever issue intrigues her at any one moment, it's fueled by her love of art itself.

"Art really has a cultural imperative, so even if [I'm involved in it in a peripheral way], it's good to be involved," she says.

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