A wide-ranging career in art law



Friday, Oct 21, 2011

Thaddeus Stauber: trial expert, general counsel, defense attorney

-By Lori Craig

Attorneys who practice art law work across a number of different legal areas, from trust and estates to trade regulation and even student affairs, as the varied career of Thaddeus J. Stauber makes clear.

Still, any art law attorney should love art.

“You’ve got to be interested in the subject matter that you’re practicing law [around],” said Stauber, a contemporary art fan. He noted that any legal professional “will tell you the business of law is about learning the business. Whether it’s art law or entertainment law or trade, or whatever it is, you find that you have to become an expert in the industry.”

Thaddeus Stauber
 Thaddeus Stauber

Stauber, a partner at Nixon Peabody who heads the firm’s Art and Cultural Institutions team, recounted his winding career path to USC Law students at an Art Law Society lunchtime event Oct. 19.

“I don’t think there’s any one particular path to whatever is your chosen practice; it’s a very circuitous route,” Stauber said. “But art law as it’s come to be defined is quite wide-ranging.”

When he graduated the University of Wisconsin Law School, Stauber went into criminal defense, with an eye on a future political career. He did trial work on a contract basis, primarily with the Madison, Wis., public defender’s office and “anything else I could get my hands on.”

His first art law case arose in his third year of practicing, when he represented a man who would eventually be sentenced to 5 to 10 years for taking pornographic photographs of his young niece. Stauber reviewed the man’s 2,000 photographs – shot in a style evoking photographer Sally Mann’s work – and had to determine whether the case could be argued on a First Amendment basis.

“It was my first time having to understand that there are many different areas where art collides with the law,” Stauber said.

Stauber later moved to Chicago and joined a small firm serving as outside counsel for the Art Institute of Chicago. Soon he would try and win the case that would “open for [him] the doors into the art industry.” It was In re Stern Estate, a trust and estate contest involving a librarian whose will was changed a few days before she died, leaving her multimillion-dollar estate to her aide. Stauber won the estate back for the Art Institute, the woman’s intended beneficiary.

“I love to fight and I love to win,” Stabuer said. “In the context of the art world, as art assets become more valuable, people are more and more interested in protecting what they have or fighting for what they think should be theirs.”

While working for the Art Institute, Stauber also handled a case involving student affairs and academic issues with the School of the Art Institute, and got involved as museums lobbied against regulation of the art trade.

Stauber moved to New York and practiced solo before heading to Los Angeles, where he soon became general counsel of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). He later joined Sidley Austin LLP, and seven years ago moved to Nixon Peabody.

He recently negotiated an agreement between the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Fisher family to bring the family’s renowned collection to the museum. Currently, Stauber is representing the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection Foundation and the Kingdom of Spain on an art restitution claim pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and frequently travels to Hungary to prepare for what will be the biggest case yet involving artwork seized from Jewish families during World War II.

Noting that a meeting he had 15 years ago recently led to another job assisting L.A.’s Natural History Museum, Stauber told students to build their professional networks of clients and contacts on the chance that interesting prospects might come their way.

“You never know where a client is going to come from,” Stauber said. “If you watch for opportunities in whatever you are doing, you never know where they’re going to take you. Your first job doesn’t define you for your entire career, by any stretch of the imagination.”