“Is it Ethical to Sell a Gift of Artwork from an Artist Once They Make it Big?” by Debra Hand

by Debra Hand

Ooh wee!  Don’t get me started!  Immediately, several answers come to mind.  Yes, several. 

For non-artists, the answer to this question might be as simple as, “Why not?” After all, when you own something, it’s yours to do with as you please. Why should a gift of art be any different, right?

Well, the answer is not quite that cut-and-dry… especially where artists are concerned.   

Many artists suffer hurt feelings after gifting their artwork to someone—or selling it to them at such an extreme discount that it may as well have been a gift—only to have that person rush to sell it once the artist’s career takes off? Now, don’t get me wrong. I certainly understand that there are various reasons why someone might sell a gifted artwork, but in every case, there are additional elements worth considering. 

Let’s just start with this… 

In any friendship, there should be ethics at work. If your friendships include gifts of original art, honoring the standards of that friendship should also extend to those art gifts. Yes. A gift is a gift. This is legally true and, technically, once an artist gives up ownership of a work, that’s the end of their say in that piece. However, a gift of someone’s original artwork is precisely the thing that qualifies it for such unique consideration. In giving their art as a gift, the artist is choosing to give that work out of some degree of honor, respect, or friendship, and they are choosing that person to be the benefactor of the work of their heart and hands. In effect, the artist is entrusting ownership of that work to a very “specific person” for that person’s specific ownership and enjoyment. So, in a way, the artwork itself is only one part of the gift; the other part of the gift is the entrusted custodianship of that particular work-of-art.    

Even without the artist ever stating it aloud or handing the person a contract, most people receiving such a gift do so with the clear understanding that the artist is entrusting them with something deeply personal.  They know that this gift is different than someone gifting them a set of bookends or a mass-produced item that is available to anyone on the open market. And they certainly understand (in this touching moment) that the artist doesn’t expect them to take the gift and speed to the nearest auction house to sell it.

These assumptions are baked into that lovely moment, even without words. So it becomes a mere technicality whether the receiver rushes off to sell the gift that day, or whether they hold onto it for a few years before selling it. The point is, if they sell it, they should be aware that the beautiful gesture of their friend gifting them with art out of respect may very well be trampled on as a result of that sale. Of course, there are some artists that such a sale won’t bother, but that would likely be the exception—UNLESS there are extenuating circumstances. 

Now, we all know that life is complicated and difficulties occur. So what happens when the owner of that gifted work just flat-out needs to sell their valuables to make ends meet? Should they be made to feel guilty about selling that gift? I think this leads to the real question: Namely, did the person sell the piece because they were in real need, or did they sell it to make a quick buck without regard for the artist’s feelings or the friendship? In effect, this topic reduces down to three simple words: need or greed?

I think most artists are reasonable enough to understand extenuating circumstances that might lead a person to have to sell an art gift, but how can an artist know a person’s motives if the person never bothers to reach out to them before the sale?  From the standpoint of an artist, they can sell their own work. They don’t need to funnel it through a friend in the form of a gift along the way, only to see that piece end up on the open market, acquired by someone they never meant to have that piece in the first place.                     

I remember a lesson I learned through the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum.  She mentored me on many aspects of being an artist. Early in my practice, she told me the story of how someone came to see her artwork in her home. While the person was there, they gushed over Dr. Burroughs’ art to the point that she generously gifted the person with one of her pieces. Dr. Burroughs said, “The next thing I knew, I was looking at that same piece in a show with a big ole price tag on it.” 

“Quest for knowledge Madonna” by Margaret Burroughs

I will always remember the look in Dr. Burroughs’ eyes as she talked about seeing what had been a gift from her heart  somewhere with a “big ole price tag on it.” After a moment, Dr. Burroughs looked at me and said, “That’s alright. I made myself a bigger and better version of that piece, and moved on.”  I never asked her the person’s name. That was beside the point. She wanted me to beware of that story and to be careful. 

That story lingered in my mind. It bothered me that someone would do that to her. But, just as surely as someone might be motivated by greed, not everyone who sells a gift of artwork is a villain with poor character. Sometimes people have to sell their valuables due to hardships such as job loss, forced down-sizing, relocation, or whatever. And these are very different situations than someone selling a work because greed overtook their sense of loyalty to their artist friend as soon as the artist’s career took off. 

Even if someone must sell an art gift for reasonable purposes, there is a respectful and considerate way to do it. I think it’s fair to at least let the artist know that their work will be going on the market. If that artist’s name is growing in popularity, a carelessly positioned public sale could hurt the brand they have spent time and money to build and position. Also, if someone sells an artwork gift for tens of thousands (or even millions) in profit after investing nothing in that work then, at the very least, they should think about sharing those proceeds with the artist who did invest time, talent, energy, supplies, and practice to not only create that piece, but to create excitement and notoriety around their name and brand. 

The fact is, when someone sells a gift of original art from their artist friend, they are converting that gift from its intended purpose as a special token of friendship meant only for them, and they are moving that gift into a completely different category where financial gain has become the new intention of that piece, and where a third party stranger will now own the artist’s work. So this is more than someone merely selling something they own. This is a trusted friend selling the time, talent, energy and work of their art friend to a total stranger, and without any benefit to the artist at all. 

Good friends deserve more than that. Even if someone needs to sell the art gift due to a financial crunch, a good friend is worth reaching out to for a conversation beforehand. 

Speaking strictly for myself, if someone is in need of selling my art gift due to hardship, I get that. In fact, I’d likely be glad it was my time and talent that could help bring them through a crisis, HOWEVER (in all CAPS), if you sell my art gift for a small fortune, I’ma need you to holla at your girl with a cut. (lol!)

Yes. I know. A gift should have absolutely no strings attached and my gifts certainly don’t. But when someone decides to flip my work out of the gift-mode and into the commerce-generating mode, they just entered the business of selling my art for profit in the market I created for me to eat from, not them. And that definitely wasn’t the goal of my gift. So if they manage to sell that art for a small fortune, I’ma be somewhere feeling like I need some change back.

Seriously, though, I’ma need to see some friendship coming back at me from their side, while they’re busy swooping in on the market I’m sacrificing to build. My first question, as the artist, would probably be, “How much do you think WE should charge?” Seems to me, when someone can start feasting off of my art that they got for free, I’ma need them to send me a plate. (lol!)

Think about it from the artist’s standpoint. If it was an artist’s hard work, time, talent, and investment in ingredients that baked a highly sought-after pie, then why is someone else wafting on aromas all the way to the auction house or bank without them? In a day when artists are selling for millions, why is everyone but the artist benefitting from these astronomical re-sales of their work? Just from an ethical standpoint: Aren’t they owed something more than a “thanks-for-letting-me-get-rich-off-of-you-right-quick” tip of the hat? 

You don’t have to be an artist to understand the sense of betrayal an artist might feel under these circumstances.  Imagine an artist borrowed a blinged-out wristwatch from you that you purchased from a thrift store, and the artist loved it so much that you let them have it as a gift. At the time, neither of you believe the watch to have any real value. But, lo and behold, the artist has the watch appraised and learns it is full of precious jewels.  Immediately the artist sells the watch for a small fortune. Do you feel the artist should share some of the proceeds with you? 

Legally, they owe you nothing, but what about ethically? It’s true that it’s “your bad” for not knowing the wristwatch was full of real jewels, but it was your “good eye” and initial investment of money that acquired it in the first place. And, it was your generosity that placed the watch in the artist’s possession—as a gift. Now the artist was able to convert that gift into a small fortune, and they’re in the position to share and distribute gifts. If they offered you nothing, would you feel good about that friendship? Suppose you had created that watch with your very own hands to bring them joy, and they rushed off to sell it for profit. Would you feel even more-so betrayed?   

When it comes to original art, the artist has likely only given someone their original work as a token of the friendship, and for that person’s exclusive enjoyment.  So if they are no longer benefitting from the gesture of friendship in the way it was intended, should not the artist also benefit from the sale?    

Dr. Burroughs was a regular giver. She handed out prints of her work to friends, students, and people who’d come to hear her speak. Today, Dr. Burroughs’ prints turn up at auction regularly. Would that bother her if she were here to see it? In my opinion, I think she would want those benefiting from the profit of works she gave them for free to also share those profits with the beloved institutions she co-founded such as the DuSable Museum and the South Side Community Art Center. As for the person in the earlier story who hurried to sell her original work after receiving it as a gift, in hindsight, Dr. Burroughs could see that the only thing that gift meant to the person was potential profit. And that indicated greed, rather than friendship. And moments like these are painful in any relationship, period. 

So please know: If an artist becomes famous and you sell those gifts of art without reaching out to them, you are risking replacing a beautiful heartfelt moment of them honoring you, and you will be replacing it with the pain of them feeling betrayed by you. Surely, there’s a better way. 

If you need to sell your gifts of art, call the artist out of respect. 

For all you know, they may even use their connections to help you sell the work privately in a way that will protect their brand from the fall-out of a public auction where the piece may not even sell. Or the artist may want that piece for their own family because it’s an early-career example of their work, and they may be willing to give you a different piece to sell in exchange for it.

One thing is for sure. The worst way to handle it is to have the artist discover through some major media announcement that you’ve flipped their beloved gift for money, the moment their career took off.

Artists are said to be extra sensitive, but every human being is sensitive when it comes to feeling betrayed in a friendship. As I say to young people, “There are those in your life who (in your love for them) you may be willing to give your whole world, but remember, in their love for you, they should not be willing to accept it. Love and care should go in both directions at all times.”

As for art, nothing will test a friendship like a gift from a generous artist friend whose work is smashing auction records to smithereens. So, artists, make sure you can handle the way your gifts might pan out—whether it be need or greed that intervenes in the long run. You just might be that artist that makes it big and it probably won’t be easy to watch your friends lining up at the auction houses with their art gifts when you do.

At any rate, Good Luck! And, as always, thank you for reading. We welcome your comments in the section provided below.

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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer.  She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park.  Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma;  Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.  She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.


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