This month New Zealand artist Ayesha Green watched in surprise as one of her artworks fetched $48,000 at auction – $29,000 more than she sold it for just a year earlier. The hammer price was sizeable for an artist who describes herself as somewhere between emerging and mid-career, and if the country had a resale royalty scheme for artists in place, Green would have taken home a healthy paycheque to put towards her practice.
But, like all local artists whose work sells at auction, Green gets nothing.
New Zealand’s secondary art market is booming. In mid-November, Auckland’s Art + Object, where Green’s work sold, generated over $15m in sales – the highest grossing art auction in New Zealand history. Another new record was set with artist Michael Parekōwhai’s A Peak in Darien selling for $2,051,900, becoming the most expensive artwork by any artist sold in a New Zealand auction.
New Zealand has toyed with the possibility of a resale royalty scheme, which pays a fee to artists when their work is sold on the secondary art market. It was introduced as an amendment bill in 2009 but failed to pass. Since then, 20 more countries have established a royalties scheme for artists, including Australia which entitles artists to 5% of the sale price of eligible artworks resold for $1,000 or more. If New Zealand had the same scheme, Green would have pocketed about $2,400.
Green, who is of both Ngāti Kahungunu and Kai Tahu tribal descent, has nothing against art auction houses, but said there was a wider issue at play.
“Being an artist in New Zealand is really difficult and artists are having to really fight for any type of money they can’t get and should rightly get. I believe there should be royalty.”
Auction houses should think about their responsibility as part of the “art ecology,” she said. “If artists can’t produce works, then [the auction houses] are going to stop having things to sell and they’ll just keep selling the same stuff again and again.”
‘Not outlandish, and not unusual’
“There is a desire from artists to see change,” Dane Mitchell, an artist and co-founder of the Equity for Artists collective says.
He recently established the collective alongside well-known artists Judy Darragh and Reuben Paterson, who is of Ngāti Rangitihi, Ngāi Tūhoe and Tūhourangi descent, to raise awareness for resale royalties, and the better implementation of copy-right licensing fees.
Establishing and maintaining a career as an artist in New Zealand can be difficult. Income is precarious and opportunities are scant. Green adds that if artists are not given more support, it could lead to a very narrow art movement.
A resale royalty is not intended to be a panacea, but would be an important tool in creating a more equitable industry, Mitchell said. “Artists struggle to put food on the table. This doesn’t go far to address that, but it’s a social, ethical and legal proposal to uplift artists.”
Copyright licensing fees, for when artwork is used in promotional material, are also rarely paid out and is another area that must be addressed, he said.
In the same way musicians and writers receive royalties for their work, visual artists should also continue to benefit from their intellectual property, Mitchell said, adding that the push for equity is not intended to be divisive.
“Auction houses are a major part of our culture, our ecosystem, and this community, and I have great respect for them … There’s an incredible amount of work that they do to enliven the arts in this country, and yet, they are somehow disengaged from us as the artists, the producers of their culture.”
Art + Object’s managing director Leigh Melville said a royalty scheme would be administratively complicated, and less-established artists would see very little return on sales.
“Big gains are very unusual in our little market … for the most part, we’re not talking about large sums of money. This is the first time that we’ve seen multimillion dollar transactions in one auction and that won’t happen again for some time.”
Artists frequently benefit from the flow-on effects of major art auctions because the auctions heighten interest in work, and unsuccessful bidders go on to seek out artists through dealers, Melville said.
Ultimately, it will come down to the government to legislate on the issue, she said.
Covid-19 slowed progress on a scheme, but the government remains committed to “assessing [its] merits”, the minister for arts, culture and heritage, Carmel Sepuloni, said. “We have heard from the sector that there is a high interest in an artist resale royalty scheme.”
In order for artists to benefit from overseas auctions of their work, there must be a similar scheme in place in New Zealand. A resale royalty scheme has been agreed to in principle as part of the New Zealand and UK free trade agreement.
“We will consider the issue of reciprocity for when New Zealand art is bought and sold in other countries, as part of the development of a potential artist resale royalty scheme,” Sepuloni said.
What artists are asking for is “not outlandish, and not unusual”, Mitchell adds. “This actually pulls us into line with international standard practice. Being out of step in this way is actually a disadvantage to New Zealand artists working internationally.”