Steven Thomas is head of the Art Law practice at Irell & Manella LLP. Mr. Thomas was also an adjunct professor at the UCLA School of Law, where he taught a course in Art and Cultural Property Law for several years between 2001-2017.
Mr. Thomas has advised collectors 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 folio, spacesuits, enigma machines, historic and ancient coins, and iconic movie props), ranging in value individually from thousands of dollars to tens of millions of dollars (with many transactions exceeding $100 million, and several exceeding $200 million, individually), including establishing numerous world records.
As part of the foregoing matters, Mr. Thomas has advised on the single largest private fine art purchase transaction, and on the most valuable private fine art collection sale in auction history. Mr. Thomas counts among his clients some of the world’s foremost collectors. Please see the Art practice area section for further description of Mr. Thomas’s and the firm’s practice.
His practice 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, business property, and personal property taxes); customs export and import concerns; art insurance (including art insurance review and negotiation of policy terms, provisions and endorsements, and preparation of disaster emergency art protection and evacuation plans); intellectual property and moral rights; and cultural heritage, treaty and patrimony matters, among others. In addition, Mr. Thomas advises on escrow agreements, appraisal agreements, art advisor, and consulting agreements, and other key art market agreements.
On two separate occasions, Mr. Thomas has advised on private fine art transactions that established the world record for the then most valuable painting ever sold, in addition to advising on numerous other individual private transactions that set new world records for a number of artists and for works in different media. While details of much of Mr. Thomas’s work remain confidential, some of the high profile private fine art sale transactions he has advised on have been reported publicly. In 2006, Mr. Thomas 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). Please see: Steve Thomas Negotiated Sale of the Most Expensive Painting Sold, and American Lawyer story on Steve Thomas and Woman in Gold.
Besides his work on private sale transactions among collectors and others, Mr. Thomas also has extensive experience negotiating auction and private sale consignment agreements with the world's leading auction houses, including negotiating some of the largest-ever single-owner fine art auction consignments and auction house guarantees. Some publicly reported examples include:
- In 2022, Mr. Thomas advised the Estate of Paul G. Allen on the $1.6 billion sale of the Paul G. Allen art collection at Christie’s in New York, which was the largest single collector auction sale in art market history. The sale of Mr. Allen’s collection set numerous new world records, including for the highest-ever auction sale total, as well as individual world records for numerous artists, and with sale proceeds dedicated to philanthropy. Please see Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles here and here.
- Mr. Thomas represented The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, in 2012, in negotiating the precedent-setting long-term consignment arrangement to sell works of art from the Warhol Foundation's collection in live auctions, online auctions, and private sales, establishing a new frontier for artist foundations in the global market. Please see: Steve Thomas Advises Warhol Foundation on Landmark Agreement.
Mr. Thomas also advises auction bidders on a range of issues and considerations, including tax planning and bid strategies, agent bid letters and agreements, and irrevocable bid agreements.
Representing private collectors and others, Mr. Thomas has advised on and negotiated exhibition loan agreements as well as long term loan agreements for single and multiple works of art to various museums and exhibitions, nationally and internationally, including addressing tax, copyright, moral rights, insurance, governmental indemnity programs, export, import, anti-seizure, disaster planning, and pandemic-related concerns, among other matters.
Mr. Thomas also advises private collectors on charitable gifting of art and major donations to museums, other institutions and foundations as well as on other transactions involving museums. In 2019, for instance, he advised a private collector and structured the promised gift to LACMA 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,” including negotiating unique terms for display and public education programs involving the painting. Please see the Los Angeles Times article here. Mr. Thomas also advised on a uniquely complex and historic sale of a rare Tiffany stained glass landscape window to a major U.S. museum (please see: Steve Thomas Advises on Sale of historic Tiffany Stained Glass Landscape Window to Museum).
Mr. Thomas has advised on and negotiated both public and private art commissions, involving both 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 a variety of locations across the country.
In the high end collector car arena, on two different occasions, Mr. Thomas has advised on transactions involving the sale of what was each time the then-world’s most expensive car.
Mr. Thomas 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. Mr. Thomas was also sought out to define the "art law" practice area definition for Best Lawyers in America.
- Adjunct professor, UCLA School of Law, teaching Art and Cultural Property Law course (various years between 2001-2017)
- 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
Mr. Thomas 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).
Mr. Thomas 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 (an in-depth article on negotiating auction consignments for collectors, which has been described as the definitive guide on the topic and remains relevant still today), 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, 2018-2022)
- 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