Legal Ownership of WPA Art

Legal Ownership of WPA Art:
The Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 transferred all functions of the Federal Works Agency, including the administration and care of the Works Progress Administration works of art, to the US General Services Administration. This document, derivative of the original WPA directives and Federal law, outlines legal ownership and title of the Works Progress Administration works of art works housed in cultural institutions.

The General Services Administration has released a new edition of "Legal Title to Art Work Produced Under the 1930s and 1940s New Deal Administration." The "Legal Title" fact sheet provides updated information about these New Deal programs, general concepts of property ownership by the federal government, and details about determining legal title for New Deal artwork ( - in toolbar on left, click "Fine Arts Program Library" then "New Deal Artwork."

Museum professionals and others with questions about the title of New Deal artworks can contact the GSA at:

General Services Administration
Fine Arts Program
1800 F Street, NW
Washington DC 20405

This information is from "GSA Updates Fact Sheet on New Deal Artworks" by Ember Farber (AVISO, December 2005)

The following are links to articles and information on legal ownership of WPA art:

WPA Art Still Subject to Seizure; U.S. Government Nabs One from Pennsylvania Auction - by Robert Kyle, August 2006

"Government Wants WPA Art Back" article


I. Background

The Department of the Treasury began Federal art patronage in 1933. The programs operated under different branches of the Department of the Treasury. In 1940, all Treasury Programs were transferred to the Federal Works Agency.

The Works Progress Administration began the Federal Art Project in 1935. In 1939, it was renamed the Works Projects Administration Art Program and was also transferred to the Federal Works Agency.

The General Services Administration (GSA) became the custodian of works of art produced under the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and other programs in 1949. The Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949 created the GSA and all functions of the Federal Works Agency were transferred to the GSA.

II. General Concepts of Federal Property Ownership

The authority for the federal government to own, use and dispose of property is found in the Constitution at Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2. The courts have interpreted this clause to mean that only Congress has the power to procure, use or dispose of property, real or personal, for the benefit of the federal government and the public. Allegheny County, PA v. United States, 322 U.S. 174 (1944). Authority to exercise these powers can be given to the executive branch (federal agencies) by laws enacted by Congress, but such laws will be strictly construed. Id. Therefore, federal property can only be disposed by an act of Congress, either by general enabling legislation (such as GSA's authority under the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949) or by specific legislation.

Based on the above, the courts have held that the federal government cannot abandon property. United States v. Steinmetz, 763 F. Supp. 1293 (D.N.J. 1991), aff'd, 973 F.2d 212 (3rd Cir. 1992). "It is well settled that title to property of the United States cannot be divested by negligence, delay, laches, mistake, or unauthorized actions by subordinate officials." Id. Furthermore, inactivity, neglect or unauthorized intentional conduct on the part of government officials will not divest the United States of ownership interest in property. Kern Copters, Inc. v. Allied Helicopter Serv., Inc., 277 F.2d 308 (9th Cir. 1960); United States v. City of Columbus, 180 F. Supp. 775 (S.D. Ohio 1959).

Congress may attach reasonable conditions to the disposal of property. Tennessee Valley Authority v. Lenoir City, Tenn., 72 F. Supp. 457 (E.D. Tenn. 1947). If the purchaser/recipient does not want to take the property subject to these conditions, they may decline to proceed with the transaction. However, if the transaction is completed, the purchaser/recipient must comply with the conditions. Id.

The ownership interest held by the United States in any work produced under the Works Progress Administration or its predecessors, still remains vested in the United States, unless it can be shown to have been conveyed in a manner authorized by Congress.

III. Title to WPA Art Work

Work commissioned under the WPA was either loaned or allocated to federal, state and local governmental entities and tax supported organizations, or non-profit organizations. During the operation of the WPA art program, it was clearly stated that the federal government would hold full legal title to art work on long term loan and title remains in the government today. However, legal title to art work distributed under the allocation procedure was not clearly established while the WPA art program was ongoing.

To establish the status of ownership with regard to works allocated, GSA relied on the legal precedent discussed above, and on the regulations of the WPA as established in The Operation of Specific Professional and Service Projects, Operating Procedure No. G-5, section 32, January 10, 1940 ("Operating Procedure"), and the Public Works of Art Program Bulletin issued by the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury on March 26, 1934, titled "Legal Title to Works Produced under the Public Works of Art Project" ("Bulletin").

The relevant portions of the Operating Procedure with regard to allocations are as follows:

The relevant portions of the Bulletin with regard to allocations are as follows:

In the first section of the Operating Procedure quoted above, it states that allocated means the transfer of title. On the portion of the Request for Allocation form, quoted in paragraph 3 above, it states that custody of the work would not be transferred. Statements such as these, read separately and out of context from the Operating Procedure, have caused much confusion both within the government and among institutions. However, if these statements are read in the context of the entire Operating Procedure, a pattern emerges evidencing the intent of the original program.

The first section quoted indicates that some form of title was meant to be transferred in an allocation. However, Part C of the Operating Procedure, quoted above in paragraph 2, shows that the WPA intended to maintain some level of control over the works of art by providing a means of recovery if the custodian agency or institution no longer desired to be responsible for the work of art. This intent is reflected again in the Receipt for Allocated Works of Art form, quoted in paragraph 4 above.

Another example of the WPA's intent to keep some level of control over the works of art in the government can be seen in Part A, second paragraph of the Operating Procedure. There it states that nonprofit institutions could receive works under the loan program, but only tax supported entities could receive the works by allocation.

It appears to be the intent of the Operating Procedure, and it is the position of GSA, that allocated works of art were transfers of restricted title. The receiving agency or institution received legal title to the works of art limited by the purpose stated in the allocation forms and by the regulations. For example, if a WPA work was allocated to be displayed in a public building by a state agency, and the state agency could no longer display the work, the legal rights to the work retained by the federal government would come into play. The state agency could not sell the work for profit, but must return it to the federal government. However, if the state agency would like to store the work, then display it again in the future, it can do so without triggering the reversionary rights of the federal government.

GSA applies this position to all movable works of art, including murals that are painted on canvas attached to the wall. If the art work is an integral part of the structure (murals, bas-reliefs and architectural ornamentation) and the structure is still owned by the original recipient of WPA art work, that institution is under an obligation to notify GSA if it no longer desires custody of the work. However, if the structure has been sold to a third party, the art work conveys with the structure and the federal government can no longer assert reversionary ownership rights in the work. GSA does request that any institution that has acquired a structure that contains WPA art work that is an integral part of the structure, and is preparing to destroy that art work, contact the GSA Fine Arts Program which may choose to preserve the work.

IV. Impact on Custodians of WPA Art Work

This position has no immediate impact on custodians of WPA art work. The GSA is attempting to catalog all works of art created under the WPA that are located in non-federal repositories, but has no intention of reclaiming any of these works unless requested to do so by the custodial agency or institution.

If you have questions regarding this issue, please contact: Scarlett D. Grose, Assistant General Counsel, General Services Administration, 1800 F Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20405 e-mail:

Bulletin Public Works of Art Project
Legal Title to Works Produced under the Public Works of Art Project

The following memorandum covering the question of the legal title to works of art produced under the Public Works of Art Project and the distribution of these works of art is issued for the guidance of the Central Office, Regional and Sub-Regional Committees conducting the Project.

1. All works of art executed with the intent that they should occupy a particular place in some public building are to be treated as part of that building.

2. The same rule applies as to any piece of sculpture executed for the purpose of being definitely placed in any building or in a public park.

3. All works of art produced by the project which are movable and not executed to occupy some particular location are the property of the Federal Government and will be in the custody for the Federal Government of the various Regional and Sub-Regional Committees and the central office in Washington. The central office and the various Regional Committees in consultation with the central office shall have the authority to place the objects of art produced in any building or park which is in whole or in part supported by taxes; Sub-Regional Committees should forward all works of art in this category to the Regional Committee unless placed in a public building. A suitable label shall be attached in some convenient form to each work of art indicating its title, the artist producing it, and the fact that it was produced under the Public Works of Art Project.

4. In cases such as etchings, lithographs, et cetera, where more than one copy or print of the work of art is produced, the plate, stone, woodblock, etc., shall be kept in the custody of the Regional Committees, until the edition of prints is decided upon by the Regional Committee in consultation with the central committee, then the original plate, etc., shall be forwarded to the Washington Office. In cases coming under this paragraph, the artist shall be allowed to retain for his own files one print.

5. In distributing works of art coming under paragraph three the Regional Committees and the Washington Office shall have discretion in determining the most suitable place of exhibition.

6. Regional Committees and Sub-Regional Committees shall keep a complete record of all works of art produced by artists employed by them. This record should show the name of the artist who produced the work and title which will distinguish it and its destination. A duplicate copy of the report being kept by the Sub-Regional Committees shall be sent to the Regional Committee and consolidated with their own report which shall be sent to the central office in Washington and consolidated with a similar report which the Washington office shall keep as to all works of art sent to them. All of these reports should include not only the works of art produced under paragraphs one and two, but the works of art to which paragraph three of this memorandum applies. A copy of the combined inventory of all of the work done under the project shall be sent to the Federal Civil Works Administration.

7. In cases such as work being done by the artists in the C.C.C. camps and public works projects arrangements will be made at the request of the artists for the artists to send their work direct to the Washington office and not through the Regional or Sub-Regional Committees.

March 26, 1934.

L. W. ROBERT, Jr. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury


The publicatons cited above are in the appendices of WPA Artwork in Non-Federal Repositories, Edition II by the General Services Administration. This book is free and may be ordered by writing to : Fine Arts Program, General Services Administration (GSA-PC), 1800 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20405.

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