When the taxi baron Robert Scull sold part of his art collection in a 1973 auction that is considered the beginning of today’s money-soused contemporary-art market, several artists watched the proceedings from a standing-room-only section in the back. There, Robert Rauschenberg saw his 1958 painting “Thaw,” originally sold to Scull for $900, bring down the gavel at $85,000. At the end of the Sotheby Parke Bernet sale, Rauschenberg shoved Scull and yelled that he didn’t want to work so hard “just for you to make that profit.”
The uproar that followed led the California legislature to pass a law, the California Resale Royalties Act, requiring anyone reselling a piece of fine art who lives in the state, or who sells the art there for $1,000 or more, to pay the artist 5 percent of the resale price.
That law is now at the center of a pair of class-action suits brought by the artists Chuck Close and Laddie John Dill and the estate of the sculptor Robert Graham against the auction powerhouses Sotheby’s and Christie’s and the online auction site eBay for failure to pay royalties.