UBC prof Robert Paterson a pioneer in the study of art law in Canada
A striking acrylic painting of an Oglala Sioux warrior hangs in Robert Paterson’s office on the fourth floor of Allard Hall, the home of the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Law.
Behind Paterson’s desk lies a large wooden carving from the Batak people of Northern Sumatra in Indonesia.
The two pieces of art may seem out of place amid all the legal textbooks on the shelves, but the worlds of art and law come together not just in Paterson’s office décor; they have been married in his research and teaching for nearly four decades.
“Art and law don’t make for obvious bedfellows,” he said. “It’s still a relatively small academic specialization.”
Art law, the definition of which remains contested, draws from a whole host of legal disciplines including intellectual property,
tort, copyright and contract law. While these disciplines are widely taught in law schools across Canada, Paterson may be the only professor in the country to teach art law as a discrete subject.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one,” said Paterson, whose background in international law initially spurred him onto the subject, studying the movement of art across national boundaries and its illegal exportation.
Among the varying topics Paterson and his students explore: the loss of mosaics from the Republic of Cyprus, the destruction of cultural heritage in the former Yugoslavia’s civil war, and the recovery of indigenous cultural properties to First Nations.
Despite their evocative nature, most art law cases are never actually heard in court as parties often reach non-legal resolutions. That may be for the best, says Paterson, who advises that it’s often “better to deal without the court in mind.” He explains the practice of art law itself can be ahead of current legislation, including in Canada.
“Canadian law doesn’t have cultural property as a separate category of property,” he explained, which can make cases involving sacred or cultural objects more difficult to pursue. “They don’t always play out well in a court where issues get translated into obtuse legal jargon.”
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But where the law can intervene most often is when a private party is found to have a painting whose original owner wants back, like a 2006 case that saw a series of Klimt paintings repatriated to a Holocaust survivor’s niece in Los Angeles.
Another example of a court case involving art allegedly appropriated by the Nazis centred on Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor, who refused to return a Van Gogh painting purchased by her father on her behalf to its original owner. The court sided with Taylor, ruling that the claimant had not done enough to track down the work of art before it sold at auction in the 1960s.
While art law is unlikely to become the sole legal expertise of Paterson’s students, given its special niche in the legal realm, many young lawyers do represent artists in gallery disputes or find success in major centres of the art market like London, New York and Paris.
Paterson says many of his students see the word “culture” in the syllabus of the courses he teaches and it resonates with them.
“It’s about the challenge, in a way, of the law dealing with the intangible aspects of people’s lives. Things that can’t necessarily be reduced to monetary value or held in your hands,” he said.
“We need more to sustain us as human beings, so what better than art and culture, and for a law school to look at its legal aspects. We’re not all about limbs and credit cards.”