D.C. artists are lobbying city officials to change a law they say leaves them exposed to rapacious creditors.
Artists say that when the District overhauled its commercial code in 2000, officials forgot to put in provisions protecting the works of artists or collectors who lend their works to galleries or other businesses.
"We're trying to address this issue before anyone loses their work," said Robert Bettmann, a choreographer who is leading the artists' lobbying efforts.
Artists and collectors routinely display works in galleries on consignment — with an agreement that if the work sells, the gallery can have a percentage of the sale but the rest goes to the artist or collector.
Under current law, the artworks are considered assets of the gallery owner, which means they can be liquidated to pay off the gallery's debts, said Councilwoman Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3.
Cheh and five of her colleagues are sponsoring new legislation that would change the law, which she said is necessary "to protect the artists."
"They'd get caught up in somebody else's financial problems," she said.
In D.C. in 1991, dozens of works were auctioned off to help pay the debts of the failed Middendorf Gallery.
"A lot of people got hurt," said George Koch of the nonprofit group Art O Matic, which helps artists connect with business and government support.
Like its counterparts around the country, D.C.'s arts community is struggling in the economy.
"What I'm finding is a tremendous amount of tire-kicking, if you know what I mean," Zenith Gallery owner and artist Margery Goldberg told The Washington Examiner.
Goldberg nearly lost dozens of works in 1999, when city officials shut down a local restaurant for failing to pay taxes. The law protected her works then.
Last month, dozens of high-end Renaissance and 19th Century works were auctioned off in New York as part of the bankruptcy and fraud investigation of the Salander-O'Reilly gallery in Manhattan. Among the works bogged down in the Salander collapse were those by Robert DeNiro Sr., father of the famed actor and a highly regarded abstract expressionist painter in his own right.