‘Swimming in the Light’ by Rick Stich, which earned him an $80 royalty check distributed by the California Arts Council. (Edward Cella Art and Architecture)

Patty Milich, a state employee, spent five months trying to give $80 to painter Rick Stitch.

An unassuming arts administrator, Ms. Milich leads a double life as California’s official art sleuth. The job tracking down abstract expressionists is an unintended consequence of a little-known 1977 law designed to cut artists in on the profits from the resale of their works.

When a work of art is resold in the state, or by a California resident, the seller must set aside 5% of the gross selling price to pay the artist. The law applies to any resale of $1,000 or more within 20 years of an artist’s death, so long as the sale isn’t between dealers.

In theory, the law is a boon for artists. In practice, it means Ms. Milich sometimes must spend months trying to deliver paltry sums to people who have faded into obscurity, moved abroad or simply don’t want to be bothered.

“I feel strongly about it,” says the 57-year-old Ms. Milich from her office at the California Arts Council, overlooking Sacramento’s City Hall. “Artists need to be rewarded for their hard work.”

Some to whom she has funneled royalty payments include big names like conceptual artist John Baldessari. Others, including the estate of Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, are due cash but haven’t responded.

The payments can run into the tens of thousands of dollars but usually are more modest, about $300 to $400, Ms. Milich says. Galleries and dealers who can’t find the artists are supposed to send the cash to the Arts Council, which holds it in escrow while it tries to locate them. About $250,000 has come to the state agency to pass on to artists.

Millions more due artists may have leaked out of the system. Many buyers and sellers don’t know about the law; others simply ignore it. Some sellers deliberately pick locations outside California to sell their works in order to avoid paying the royalty, arts lawyers say.

Many artists whose names Ms. Milich receives are tracked down after a quick database search. About one-third of the cases require work that can go on for months.

Mr. Milich began working on the Stitch case in September, when auction house Bonhams & Butterfields sent a check for works it had sold in a June auction, including the artist’s 1988 triptych “Swimming in the Light.”

“Swimming” sold for $1,600. A Google search turned up a 2004 article in the Goleta Valley Voice about an artist that she thought was her man. The article indicated he lived in the Santa Barbara area and taught at a local college.

But those promising clues led nowhere. White-pages searches in the area turned up no trace of Mr. Stitch. He no longer seemed to be teaching at the school, which didn’t respond to an email asking how to reach him.


Sarah McBride
Wall Street Journal