Navigating the complexities of the art world

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By Lori Atherton
University of Michigan Law Quadrangle

“People think of the art world as being classy and sophisticated, but it’s actually kind of a sleazy snake pit,” says Cinnamon Stephens, a 1994 graduate of Michigan Law. “And I like that, because it’s fun to navigate it and find ways the industry can improve in terms of due diligence, provenance, contracts, and other areas.”

Stephens has been specializing in art law for more than two decades—first in Seattle and now in Amsterdam. She focuses on matters involving art transactions, acquisitions and disposition, copyright, licensing, personality rights clearance, contract drafting and negotiations, estate planning, nonprofit/for-profit entity creation, and joint ventures. Her clients have included collectors, visual artists, filmmakers, screenwriters, authors, musicians, museums, and galleries.

It’s an unusual legal path, admits Stephens, who had aspirations of becoming a diplomat in the Middle East until a random conversation altered those plans. “My best friend’s dad was an absent-minded professor type,” Stephens says, “and when he learned that I was going to law school, he said, ‘That’s great, now she can do something with her interest in art.’ That’s when the lightbulb went on.”

While her friends were applying for Big Law jobs during their 3L year, Stephens was writing letters to art museums and galleries all over the world, asking for advice on how to pursue art law as a career. She took an internship studying preservation law with an archaeologist in Rio de Janeiro after graduation, as well as a one-month internship with a Seattle law firm that turned into a full-time job.

After three years as an associate, Stephens left the firm to become a solo practitioner. She rented office space in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, where the art scene was thriving. Her first clients were local artists whom she met at gallery openings and through volunteering with the nonprofit Washington Lawyers for the Arts. “It was not comfortable at all,” Stephens says of those early networking days, “but I found that when I kept going to events, I started to become familiar to people and began to make friends. Work is always more plentiful when I am less of a hermit.”

Stephens’s first big case was against lawyers representing billionaire Paul Allen, who had bought the Seattle Seahawks football team in 1996. Her clients were two artists whose work had been commissioned for the new CenturyLink stadium and for whom Stephens had done contract negotiations. More recently, Stephens watched a live auction on her smart phone for a client, “who claimed good title to the work but felt it had been converted by an unscrupulous dealer.”

Stephens’s favorite clients have been those who have brought her unusual legal problems to solve, including an artist-friend Stephens has known for 20 years. “He wasn’t able to pay me in the beginning, but he would trade me interesting legal issues that gave me a chance to do the work,” Stephens says. “One time he wanted to put on a forgery show in which copies of famous paintings were displayed. He asked what he had to do so that the show wasn’t illegal.”

A self-described “fan of contracts and copyright registration,” Stephens says that getting some clients to understand their importance has been a continuing challenge over the years. “What I never stop seeing is people deciding they don’t need paperwork,” she says. “I’ve found that the people who don’t put it in writing always come back, and it’s usually bad. It’s an unending fight to get people to invest in the right advice, and then not freak out when there is a 20-page contract. Sometimes you need a 20-page contract.”

Art law is a vast field, which is why it’s so appealing to Stephens. One area she especially enjoys is antiquities, “particularly what’s going on in the Middle East in terms of protecting cultural objects, limiting looting, finding objects that already have been looted, and letting collectors know what red flags to look for with artifacts.” While Stephens hasn’t had any antiquities cases yet, she continues to follow developments in the restitution of looted cultural objects, and even completed a three-month art crime program in Italy through the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, which brought her together with notable experts in the field, including the former head of art security at Scotland Yard.

It’s been an interesting career for Stephens, and she gives credit to her best friend’s father for pointing her toward art law. “I don’t know what I’d be doing if he hadn’t made that comment. Perhaps I’d be in the Middle East and my Arabic would be better,” she laughs.

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