Leading Article: Whistler was right: artists are more deserving than collectors

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE IS a superficial resemblance between Britain's reluctance to give visual artists a legal right to royalties on resale of their works, and its refusal to countenance an EU-wide withholding tax on foreign savings held in the London bond market. In both cases, the Government argues that British jobs are at stake, and that therefore it does not wish to go along with the changes demanded by our community partners. But there is a significant difference between the two cases. There is no important principle involved in whether or not a country chooses to tax savings held by foreigners in its investment houses; as the old saw has it, tax evasion is illegal, tax avoidance is sensible. The continuing rights of artists in their creations is another matter entirely.

It is hard to see why makers of paintings, collages, drawings, engravings, prints, lithographs, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics and photographs should be treated any differently from authors and composers. After all, an artist's most valuable works may be made when he or she is still unknown, and although artists may be properly grateful to patrons who buy their works for a few hundred pounds, why should the fifth owner of such works be able to sell them for five-, six-, seven- or even eight-figure sums with no share of that sum going to the artists or their heirs?

This is not a novel proposal. Fifty nations around the world already recognise such resale rights, including 11 other member states of the European Union. As to the argument that these countries do not have such flourishing auction houses as does London, we are tempted to reply that London does not have such a flourishing market in pirate CDs as does China, and yet this is no reason to fail to press the Chinese to enforce copyright protection.

As to the contention that owners of works of art will flee to the United States and Switzerland to sell their paintings and sculptures, certainly the European Union would be a powerful force acting collectively to press on the Americans and Swiss the case for the rights of artists. They might even take their cause to the much-abused World Trade Organisation, which could usefully show its value by making this morally unexceptionable intellectual copyright enforceable around the world.

The 19th-century painter James McNeill Whistler used to argue that collectors of his pictures were just custodians for future generations. What was taken to be arrogance in his lifetime looks more like foresight in ours.