What Exactly Is Art Law, Anyway?

I’m pleased to host a guest post from Samantha O’Neal, one of the leaders of BC Law’s Art Law Society.

It is a universally acknowledged truth that a college student majoring in Classics and Archaeology will be the subject of much familial concern and consternation, especially if that student has little desire to actually be an archaeologist. I was one of those students. Few moments can be as uncomfortable as your friends’ parents staring at you while wondering aloud, “But what are you going to do with that?” as they try to mask their sympathy for my poor, long-suffering parents who would probably be supporting me forever thanks to my desire to study a “dead” language (I’ll forego listing the merits of a Classical education for the moment.)

I had the great fortune to be born to parents who, while most certainly long-suffering, champion the Liberal Arts education. They always figured that, regardless of what I wanted to do, I would either need to go to grad school or be trained on the job, so why not study something I was actually interested in? But I never saw undergrad as some carte blanche to major in anything I wanted. Rather, it was an important step in my journey to studying museums and cultural property law.

I’ve always had this love/hate relationship with the British Museum, a place I’ve had the privilege to visit several times over the years. On the one hand, I love that, like a book, museums of this sort provide access to and education about the far-flung corners of the world, places most people never get to see. Museums preserve these artifacts of cultures long gone and allow people to understand humanity’s common cultural heritage as a whole. Few museums have a collection as extensive and impressive as the British Museum. On the other hand, the museum has mostly managed to achieve such diversity due to Britain’s colonial history, and many of its artifacts have a dubious provenance. The tension between access and preservation, and the facilitation of cultural groups’ and countries’ reclamation of the cultural heritage in the post-colonial era bring up a lot of questions.

How do we best preserve and protect our cultural heritage? Who really owns an artifact? Does anyone? What rights does a country or cultural group have if it did not even exist when the artifact was created? What can we do to stop the illegal trade of antiquities? Is this even an issue that needs to be solved? How should we hold museums accountable?

Writing this, I’m reminded of a question my uncle once posed to me at Thanksgiving when I had just started thinking about the LSAT. He asked me if I saw the world as black and white or made of shades of grey. Knowing that many people see the law as pretty clear cut—something is illegal or it’s not—I think my answer of grey surprised him. If my fledgling legal career has taught me anything, though, it’s that this early assumption of ambiguity was correct.

As the Co-President of BC’s Art Law Society, I often deal with the ambiguous question of what exactly is art law. After spending my summer at Boston’s chapter of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, I can safely answer: almost everything. Art law can involve property, tax, contracts, corporate, trusts and estates, criminal, and much more. Through my role in the Art Law Society and my experience this past summer, I’ve gotten to investigate many of these topics, often with BC Law alums themselves, and gotten the opportunity to work at BC’s own museum, the McMullen.

In the realm of “maybes” and “it depends” known as law school, no answers are definitive, but I’m grateful to be in a town and at school that lets me explore them.

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