Steven Thomas is head of the Art practice at Irell & Manella LLP and has been an adjunct professor at the UCLA School of Law, where he taught a course in Art and Cultural Property Law for many years, starting in 2001. He has advised on the many varied aspects of the purchase, auction, sale and collection of fine art, as well as cultural property, fine collector cars, memorabilia and collectables (including items as varied as Shakespeare’s first folios to spacesuits to an historic large scale Tiffany Stained Glass Window). The foregoing include national and international transactions among private collectors, dealers, museums, galleries and auction houses, among others, ranging in value from thousands of dollars to single purchases and sales in the tens of millions of dollars (including multiple individual transactions exceeding $100 million and several exceeding $200 million). His practice in these areas includes addressing the key elements of such transactions, including title, authenticity, condition, value and provenance, as well as due diligence and pitfalls and protections for buyers and sellers.
Steven’s practice also includes planning for, and consideration of, foreign, federal and state tax consequences related to art transactions as well as movement of art among jurisdictions (including sales, use, income and personal property taxes); customs export and import concerns and related tax matters; art insurance (including art insurance review and negotiation of policy terms, provisions and endorsements); intellectual property and moral rights; resale royalties; and cultural heritage, treaty and patrimony matters, among others. In addition, he negotiates and drafts purchase and sale agreements, bills of sale, escrow agreements, consignment agreements, irrevocable bid agreements, appraisal agreements, art advisor and consulting agreements and other key art market agreements.
While details of much of his work, including advising on the single largest private art purchase transaction, remain confidential, public examples include, as an example, in 2006, Steven represented Maria Altmann and the other Bloch-Bauer heirs and negotiated the sale of what was internationally recognized as the world's most expensive painting, Gustav Klimt's "gold" portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, restituted to the Bloch-Bauer heirs by Austria and then sold to the Neue Galerie, New York (and the subject of the 2014 film Woman in Gold), and negotiated the historic and world record setting auction consignment of the other four Klimt paintings also restituted to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. Steven has also advised on several other world record-setting art transactions, both privately and at auction. Steven counts among his clients some of the world’s foremost collectors, and several of his clients are trustees at a variety of museums. Please see the Art practice area section for further description of Steven’s and the firm’s practice.
On behalf of private collectors, Steven has extensive experience negotiating auction and private sale consignment agreements with the world's leading auction houses, as well as advising bidders on a range of issues and considerations including tax planning and bid strategies and irrevocable bid agreements. In his representation of collectors, he has negotiated some of the largest-ever single-owner fine art auction consignments and auction house guarantees, including several resulting in world auction records. As an example, Steven represented The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in negotiating the precedent-setting long-term consignment arrangement to sell works of art from the Warhol Foundation's collection through Christie's in live auctions, online auctions and private sales, establishing a new frontier for artist foundations in the global market. Steven has also written an in-depth article on negotiating auction consignments for collectors, titled “Auction Consignment Agreements: Pitfalls and Planning Strategies,” published in the April 2009 edition of Estate Planning magazine, which has been described as the definitive guide on the topic and remains relevant still today.
Representing private collectors and others, Steven has drafted and negotiated loan agreements for single and multiple works of art to various museums and exhibitions, both nationally and internationally, including addressing tax, copyright, insurance, governmental indemnity programs, export, import and anti-seizure concerns, among other matters (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; The Broad in Los Angeles; the Art Institute of Chicago; The National Gallery in London; the Royal Academy of Arts in London; the Tate Modern in England; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Academie de France - Villa Medici in Rome; and Galeries nationales du Grand Palais in Paris; among many others). Recent examples include, among others, loan agreements for the exhibitions, “Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again,” and “Jasper Johns: ‘Something Resembling Truth.’”
Steven also advises private collectors on charitable gifting of art and major donations and endowments to museums, other institutions and foundations. In 2019, for instance, he advised a private collector in the promised gift of the iconic Kerry James Marshall painting, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self,” described in Marshall’s career retrospective as “perhaps the single most important picture of his life,” to LACMA, including negotiating unique terms for display and public educational programs involving the painting. Please see the Los Angeles Times article here.
Steven has advised on and negotiated both public and private commissions of art, involving individual and multiple works for large public and private developments including a major state-of-the-art national football stadium and convention complex involving 12 separate public art commissions, as well as town centers and major retail and resort projects.
In addition to his work involving fine art, Steven has negotiated and advised on world record-setting transactions involving a range of cultural property, as well as high-end collectibles. As an example, Steven negotiated the consignment agreement for a world record private sale of a single collector car, as well as negotiating the consignment agreement for the sale of a record setting private car collection, which set the world record for the then-highest recorded single-day automotive collection sale.
Steven has been featured and/or quoted, and some of the transactions he has handled or advised on have been described, in a variety of articles regarding legal issues and other matters of interest to fine art collectors, including in AP, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, The Guardian, ARTINFO, Art in America, The New Yorker, Forbes, the Art Newspaper, Art & Auction, ARTnews, BBC, The American Lawyer, Boston Herald, Robb Report, Estate Planning Journal, BNA State Tax Notes, ABA Journal, Los Angeles Business Journal, Los Angeles Daily Journal, and San Francisco Daily Journal, among others. Steven was also sought out to define the "art law" practice area definition for Best Lawyers in America.
High-profile matters Steven has handled include:
- Steve Thomas Advises on Sale of historic Tiffany Stained Glass Landscape Window to Museum
- Steve Thomas Advises on Gift of Kerry James Marshall Painting to LACMA
- American Lawyer story on Steve Thomas and Woman in Gold
- Steve Thomas Advises Warhol Foundation on Landmark Agreement
- Steve Thomas Negotiated Sale of the Most Expensive Painting Sold
- Steven Thomas Negotiated Consignment Agreement and Advised on Sale of the World’s Most Valuable Car
- Adjunct professor, UCLA School of Law, teaching Art and Cultural Property Law course
- Served as board and executive committee member, Inner City Law Center
- Served as board member, Western Law Center for Disability Rights
- Served as a member, New York's Museum of Modern Art Planned Giving Advisory Committee
- Served as a member, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Professional Advisory Committee
Publications and Speaking Engagements
Steven has lectured on art law topics at Stanford Law School, USC Gould School of Law, Columbia Law School's EASLS Symposium, NYU's Art and Cultural Heritage Crime Symposium and University of Florida Warrington College of Business Poe Center for Business Ethics. He has also lectured on art law topics at conferences (including a variety of ALI-ABA and other bar association seminars and conferences, the International Bar Association in London, the USC Tax Institute, the Heckerling Institute, Museum Trustee Association Director's Forum, the National Business Institute and West LegalEdcenter and the USPTO Global Intellectual Property Academy), museums, legal education programs, and art fairs (including IFAR, Los Angeles Art Fair and ARCO, Madrid).
Steven has authored articles on art law issues in a variety of publications, including “Legal Issues for Collectors of Art and Cultural Property,” in Private Wealth Management, and “Auction Consignment Agreements: Pitfalls and Planning Strategies,” published in Estate Planning magazine, as well as an in-depth, practical guide for art collectors, titled An Overview of Issues of Interest to the Art Collector.
Honors & Awards
- Recognized as a Leading Lawyer (Band 1) in the Art and Cultural Property Law category in Chambers High Net Worth USA: Nationwide edition, which ranks leading private wealth advisors (2019-2021)
- Recognized by The Best Lawyers in America in the areas of art law and trusts and estates (2016-2023)
- Named to the Southern California Super Lawyers list (2007-2016, 2018-2021)
- Rated Martindale-Hubbell AV Preeminent®
Yale Law School (J.D., 1985); Book review editor, Yale Law and Policy Review
University of Florida (B.A., 1982)
- California, 1987
- U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, 1992
- U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, 1987
- U.S. Supreme Court, 1992