Finding original artworks among your talented loved one’s things

6 min read

What to do with a loved one’s unpublished artwork

  • Finding original works of art among a family member or friend’s belongings after they die can be an emotional experience, and a way to connect with them.

  • If you are inspired to make sure these works are part of your loved one’s legacy, you have several options.

  • If you think the works have commercial potential, any proceeds or publishing rights will be owned by the estate, since copyrights extend beyond death.

  • Working with a lawyer is highly advised if you want to investigate posthumous publication.

  • If you want them simply to be seen by an audience, or saved for future generations, there are multiple options for exhibiting their art in public or online.

Both emotionally and physically, there may be no more challenging task after someone you love dies than cleaning out their home.

Being around their things, in the place where they lived, can inspire a range of emotions, anything from cozy comfort to unbearable pain. It’s often the specific, personal details that are so evocative: the scent of their kitchen, the sight of their handwriting on scraps of paper, or their favorite suits lined up in a closet.

But what if you come across something even more personal: artwork they created but had never shared with the world?

It may feel like a godsend, a joyful jolt—and can allow you to connect with them in a new way even though they’re gone. The experience may even inspire you to be a champion for your loved one and their artistic vision. 

While most people nowadays leave behind a digital legacy via social media or online self-publishing tools, it is less common to discover unpublished works after death. What should you do with them? How can you share them with others, if that’s what you believe your loved one would have wanted?

In many cases, you’ll need the advice of a lawyer with specific expertise in this area, and there are several things to consider before you make any decisions about what to do with these works of art.

Who owns the artworks?

Copyright extends beyond death, and an artist’s work can continue to generate income long after they are gone. Any proceeds from or publishing rights to works of art belong to the estate. If their artworks or the copyright on them are not explicitly mentioned in the will, they and the money they earn become part of the residuary estate and will go to the heirs and beneficiaries of that part of the estate once probate is settled.

If your loved one was a known author, they may have a literary executor who is already handling publishing rights and income from their body of work. That person will then need to be alerted to what you’ve found.

If your loved one was already making their living in the arts, as a working musician, an independent filmmaker, or a fiction writer, for instance, they may have established relationships with agents or lawyers who can help you make decision about what feels right for your family and your loved one’s legacy.

If you want to publish them

Even before technology made it easy for many kinds of artwork to be preserved forever in digital formats, family members have traditionally been legacy-keepers for talented and creative family members, famous or not.

This was the case with several artists—including Vincent Van Gogh and Edgar Degas—whose prominence grew after their deaths because of the diligence of family members. John Kennedy Toole was a relatively unknown writer when he died, but his mother’s efforts to get A Confederacy of Dunces posthumously published led to a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

Copyright extends beyond death, and an artist’s work can continue to generate income long after they are gone.

If, like Toole’s mother, you see something special in your loved one’s creations and want to pursue publishing on your own, seeking the advice of an estate lawyer is going to be very helpful in understanding the legal and tax ramifications of any decision you make (assuming you are the executor of the estate or the beneficiary who will inherit the artworks).

If you just want others to see them

On the other hand, perhaps getting your loved one’s final creative expressions out into the marketplace is the last thing on your mind—but simply throwing them out feels like a betrayal.

There are many ways to honor their art and share these artifacts from their life with friends, family, and the world.

First, you could consider creating a website to serve as a permanent online memorial where their work can be accessible by all.

Another way to honor their legacy would be to organize a showing of some kind: an art exhibition, a film screening, or a music listening party, for example.

Depending on the guest list, you could hold this at your home, a local art gallery, a community center, a church, or even a favorite restaurant or bar. Consider sharing the festivities via Zoom, Google Hangout, etc., so that out-of-town family and friends can participate as well.

While it may make perfect sense to make this part of the funeral or memorial plans, keep in mind that you do not have to plan everything at once. In fact, hosting a gathering several months after the funeral gives those who are grieving a chance to come together once again to celebrate their creative loved one.

How to maintain works of art

Over the long term, if you do not choose to display the works in your home—or gift them to family and friends who will do the same—you’ll need to make decisions about where to keep them. This is especially true if your loved one left behind paintings, sculptures, or other works you can hold in your hand.

Fine art storage costs can be steep, ranging between $5 and $12 per square foot per month—so a large collection of 500 works could cost more than $1,000 a month. Alternatively, you can store them in a regular storage unit, or put together an at-home storage space, as long as you follow a few important guidelines.

First, to avoid any degradation of the art over time, make sure the space is finished and has climate control (so, dark and dusty attics or basements are out). Use a room that is completely inside the house, since exterior walls are vulnerable to weather and damaging sunlight. Finally, check that there are no air vents or open windows.

In general, make sure all materials you’re using are acid-free. Another rule of thumb is to never store art on the floor.

To clean the art before you store it, use a microfiber cloth to remove any dust from hard surfaces. Then, check with a professional about the best wrapping technique. One thing to avoid is plastic wrap, which can trap humidity inside and lead to mold.

In general, make sure all materials you’re using are acid-free. Another rule of thumb is to never store art on the floor. Elevate them, hang them on the wall, but never keep them on the ground. And a humidifier is handy: ideally, you’ll want to to store artwork at 40-50% humidity with a temperature between 70 and 75 degrees.

For digital works like audio, video, or image files, make sure they’re saved in more than one location. A computer hard drive is not sufficient—remember that no machine lasts forever.

Depending on how large the files are, it is a good idea to save them as well to one of the many free cloud-based services such as Google Drive, Apple iCloud, or Amazon Drive.

For files such as video files, which may be too large for free services’ size limits, there are a also many choices. Dropbox and Evernote, for example, have monthly plans that range from $7.99 to $16.99 a month. (The price goes up as you get more storage space.)

However you choose to preserve or display these last gifts from your loved one’s creative mind, remember that this is an act of service that will honor them for years. And it is a gift to future generations.

With that in mind, remember that there is no need to get this done on a short timeline. Give yourself space to grieve, and when you have the energy to create a permanent home for these works, know that it’s a task that is well worth your time.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.