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Out of nearly 40,000 artists whose paintings have been catalogued by Art UK, about half are still in copyright (copyright lasts for the life of the artist plus 70 years). Therefore, since 2004 we’ve contacted, or attempted to contact, about 20,000 artists or their estates. Despite our best efforts we’re not always successful, in which case their works are rather poignantly recorded as ‘orphans’.

Nearly all copyright holders we have contacted are happy to take part in the Art UK project by granting us permission to reproduce their paintings. Only a very few have declined, less than one percent. Reasons may vary. For example, portraitists occasionally explain that they’ve had to paint in a certain style to meet the demands of the sitter or commissioner, with the result that those portraits aren’t representative of their work.

The sleuthing part of my job is an aspect I particularly enjoy. It’s very satisfying to finally contact somebody for whom I’ve been searching, sometimes for many years. On one memorable occasion I traced the elderly widow of an artist who had died 20 years earlier. The widow lived in a remote part of Scotland and when I rang her out of the blue to tell her that we’d discovered paintings by her husband in a public collection she was so thrilled and moved that she nearly had us both in tears.

Unfortunately, however, even in this age of social media and internet search engines, many copyright holders are simply untraceable. Therefore we’re always delighted when they come forward and claim their orphan works. Reader, if this applies to you, please contact us!

Mary Rose Rivett-Carnac, Art UK Copyright Officer