Honoring Judith Bresler
Judith Bresler passed peacefully at New York Presbyterian Hospital on May 21, 2020, following a valiant battle with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. The distinguished lecturer and prominent art law attorney delighted in playing the piano, and flourished in her innate gift for language; writing poetry, mastering her boggle skills, and eventually becoming co-author of the leading treatise on Art Law, referred to by Forbes as the “bible of the industry.” Unapologetically opinionated, yet remarkably caring with impeccable etiquette, Judith loved a debate; her cunning and joie de vivre made her a gift to both her friends at book clubs and dinner parties, and to her colleagues, clients, and students throughout her inspiring career. While of counsel to the law firm WithersWorldWide, she taught Art Law at New York Law School for 25 years, where her pupils often called her “too tough,” before seeking out her mentorship, and lectured as an adjunct faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania Law School (where she attended undergraduate university). Dedicated to and respected in her chosen field, further ample professional contributions include: serving as General Counsel to the Appraisers Association of America; on the Board of Trustees of New York Law School, and the Philadelphia Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts; as Chair of the Art Law Committee, and Chair of the Entertainment, Art and Sports Law Section of the New York State Bar Association, plus publishing extensively on all aspects of the art market. Never one to shy away from a new pursuit, Judith drew on her experiences, and wrote a screenplay about life in the art world. A creative at heart—unsentimental, but playful and romantic—she loved the water, horror films, whimsical accent furniture, life and her family. She was admired and adored by her daughters Alexandra Lee and Elinor Drue, and cherished by her husband of 40 years, Ralph Lerner. Judith was the life force of her family; unrelenting in her belief in those she loved, she was always there with a sensitive ear, bold encouragement, sound solutions, and a radiant smile. Determined and seemingly unshakable, the embodiment of tenacity and grace through the very end—hers is a legacy that will live in our hearts eternally.
This obituary, which was printed in the New York Times, can be accessed at legacy.com.
Tributes to Judith
My Brilliant, Elegant, Loving Friend
The loss of Judith to the art law community is profound. The loss of Judith to me personally is heart-breaking. We were “family.” She was one of the true joys of my life. She was beautiful inside and out. One of the first gifts she gave me was a bracelet that was full of colorful, deeply rich, and subtly dazzling gems. That bracelet is the essence of Judith.
When she came into our home, in came a gorgeous, bright, empathetic presence. It was a joy to have her at our table. She came in with great charisma and beauty and added so much to each event with her brilliance and her special empathy. She listened with all of her being and added so much with her beautiful presence. She was full of opinions and knowledge, which she forcefully and gracefully shared.
Professionally, she was a gem and an inspiration. She was a generous and esteemed colleague. We first met professionally in the early 90s at industry meetings. She spoke at events I organized, and I often attended her talks elsewhere. When I began teaching Artists’ Rights at the School of Visual Art, I prepared for the course by outlining key chapters from her treatise Art Law: The Guide for Collectors, Dealers, Investors, and Artists, which she co-authored with her husband, Ralph Lerner. At that point, the treatise was in its first edition and consisted of one volume. It has since expanded to three volumes, and soon we will have the fifth edition. I was honored to have been asked by Judith to review this treatise for the EASL Journal. Still, in my practice today, I regularly consult it.
Judith worked tirelessly and shared her expertise. So many young lawyers tell me how she mentored them and provided an example of how a modern woman could have a family and a successful career. She taught Art Law at New York Law School as an act of love and as a way of giving back. She prepared for each class as though she had not taught it before. I know she was a great teacher and deeply respected by her students.
We were family. We spent Thanksgivings together and other holidays. It was quite special to be considered “family” by her, as she fiercely loved Ralph, her husband, and her daughters Alix and Drue. She let you know that she loved you. She was so happy when I met Frank (now my husband) and always said she wanted to dance at my wedding. Ralph and Frank became good friends too, and we had many wonderful times together.
She, Judi Finell, and I were like sisters. We spent our birthdays together and vowed we would continue our cherished tradition into our 90s. It is unfathomable that we three can no longer celebrate together.
She couldn’t come to my wedding because she was too sick, but she was there in spirit. She told me she could see me getting married in a red dress, so I shopped for one. I found a great one, but could not buy it until she saw it on me (via the phone). I wanted Judi and Judith to walk me down the aisle. Judi gracefully walked me down the aisle. Although Judith could not come in person, she was there in spirit.
We could tell each other everything and talk about our real concerns. She always let me know how much I mattered to her. She listened with her entire heart and soul. The last time I saw her was mid-February, right before she went into the hospital. Even on that day when she was so ill, she was deeply interested in a special lecture I was giving.
Judith was the essence of elegance and grace. She was beautiful on the outside and inside; she manifested an elegance and tastefulness that went far beyond the surface. She had a deep and strong spirit as well—a deep spiritual sense and courageous strength. Even throughout her devastating illness, she was the essence of grace and courage. She will always be an inspiration to me professionally and personally.
Carol J. Steinberg
Law Office of Carol J. Steinberg
Co-Chair, EASL Fine Arts and Pro Bono Committees
Judith Bresler was a true original in every way, but it was her emotional generosity and powerful empathy that tied her to my soul. She seamlessly combined self-confidence and vulnerability, just as she merged the linear mind of an attorney with the borderless imagination of a creative artist.
We first met at a bar association event in New York City where I was a guest speaker. Our initial conversation lasted only a few minutes but it forged an immediate and lasting friendship. I quickly learned that Judith was not only an authority in her chosen field of art law, but also the fiercely adoring mother of two daughters and wife to husband Ralph, her true partner in every way. I see echoes of Judith within the defined individuality of both of her daughters today, which is not surprising; Judith touched so many of us permanently.
She was a natural leader and teacher, and a born mentor to all who needed her encouragement and advice. She was passionate and tenacious and loyal and opinionated and kind. Judith possessed an unmatched intensity and true zest for life. She was simply a joy and inspiration to be around. For many years, we shared our New York Philharmonic and theater subscriptions. Even though I am a musicologist and practically live for all things musical, my favorite part of our symphony evenings together was the pre-concert dinner conversations with Judith!
Judith, the wonderful Carol Steinberg and I have enjoyed years of wonderful memories together, sharing our birthdays, beautiful summer weekends, and many meaningful milestones such as Carol’s recent wedding to Frank. Judith and I “shopped” remotely with Carol for her wedding dress, and when Carol found a striking red dress, Judith immediately pronounced, “This is the one!” There was no second-guessing with Judith. She so absolutely knew what she believed to be true, and I have always admired her brilliance and certitude. She was a compassionate and staunch ally in times of crisis, and left no doubt that she believed in those she loved.
When Judith retired from her law practice, she was the most active retired person I had ever seen. She embraced this new chapter of her life as intensely as she had her law career, and soon wrote an incredible screenplay. No challenge she took on escaped her laser focus. I began to adopt Judith’s guiding light for many a difficult life choice, and my internal conversation often now includes the question, “What would Judith do?”
President of Judith Finell MusicServices Inc.
Although Judith and I met each other many times through bar associations, she really became a friend and mentor in 2006 when I was writing the first edition of Copyright Litigation Handbook. As an author who had been very successful with Art Law: The Guide for Collectors, Investors, Dealers & Artists that she had co-written with Ralph, Judith selflessly gave me advice on how to market and promote and what to expect from the publishing process. She was a dynamo in bar association events supporting the arts: I will always be grateful for her kindness and her many spirited and expert interventions as a panelist and organizer of so many events where I was able to learn from her. Judith epitomized the best of the legal and academic professions; her work and kind spirit had a profound and uplifting impact on all of us. With Judith’s passing, many in the art law world will have lost their North Star. My condolences to her wonderful family.
Raymond J. Dowd
Partner, Dunnington Bartholow & Miller LLP
The name Judith Bresler was known to me before our paths first crossed in around 2009. She was a major star in the art law firmament, so accomplished and prominent, not to mention au courant. And so, I was very excited when she accepted my invitation to appear on a panel on artists’ moral rights in 2011. Then, if not earlier, Judith and I became friends. I joined EASL’s Executive Board and soon learned that her reputation was honestly come by.
I dislike committees and get impatient with inefficiencies and intransigence. But working with Judith was a dream. She returned messages immediately and always answered her phone. When she said she’d do something, she did it. And the more I got to know Judith, the more I realized that she was not only brilliant and effective, but she was genuinely kind and generous. She even got me to join her ladies book club, something I would never have done for anyone else.
I recall standing in front of a supermarket at 84th Street and Madison Avenue in the spring of 2012, begging the few Democrats I could find to sign my nominating petition to run for Surrogate of New York County. Judith came to help. I marveled to myself, Judith Bresler wants to help me? I was so honored and touched. Powerhouse Judith dug in her heels and got lots of signatures and we had fun. Well, as much fun as one can have petitioning.
And so I agreed to help out with EASL’s Phil Cowan Memorial/BMI Scholarship Essay contest.* Year after year, Judith ran the best kind of tight ship. In 2018, she managed, with Barry Skidelsky, to dissuade BMI from withdrawing from the project. Nothing could have gotten BMI back the following year. Not even Judith.
Judith exerted Herculean efforts in attempting to get legislation passed relating to gallery consignments. She recounted a lengthy train trip to Albany, which somehow then necessitated a long car ride. As chic as she was, Judith was never afraid to get her hands dirty. She devoted herself to her projects, too numerous to list, and she wholeheartedly believed in each. The Art Law treatise she wrote with her beloved Ralph is a testament to her.
Judith’s warmth, fearlessness, openness, and her 1,000-watt smile will be sorely missed.
Justice Barbara Jaffe
New York State Supreme Court
*Now to be renamed the Phil Cowan-Judith Bresler Memorial Scholarship
It is extremely sad news to hear about the passing of Judith Bresler. I had the opportunity and pleasure of working closely with Judith when I served in various EASL capacities, including as Chair of the Section, and subsequently as an Executive Committee member when she became Chair. Judith was deeply dedicated to the work and mission of EASL, especially with her outreach to the newly admitted members and law students of the Section. I know that I speak for all when I say how grateful we are for her vision, wisdom, leadership, and hard work on behalf of the Section. One of her most notable contributions and legacies that I wish to highlight is the creation of the writing competition then called the Phil Cowan Memorial/BMI Scholarship for law students.* She not only helped launch the writing competition, but she continued her outstanding guidance in helping to expand the law student scholarship competition to law students throughout the country. Judith’s love for the academic side of the profession is not only evident in her own internationally recognized scholarship on art law, but also on the lives of the hundreds of law students and practitioners who she has taught over the years. I am particularly thankful for and praise her tireless efforts in sharing the virtue of honesty, integrity, professionalism, and hard work. There are not enough words to truly capture the life and profound impact she has had on us all. What a beautiful, intelligent and caring person to have known and worked with as a colleague and friend. My sincere and heartfelt condolences to Judith’s husband Ralph Lerner, and to their daughters Alexandra and Elinor.
Prof. John R. Kettle III
Former EASL Section Chair
Director, Intellectual Property Law Clinic
Judge John W. Bissell Scholar
Faculty Advisor, Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal
Rutgers Law School
*Now to be renamed the Phil Cowan-Judith Bresler Memorial Scholarship
Judith made exceptional contributions to EASL and was a wonderful colleague, mentor and friend to many. A champion of the arts, she will long be remembered for her wisdom, scholarship, generous teaching, and singular voice in the field of art law. Sincere condolences to her family and all who cherish her memory.
Judith B. Prowda
Former EASL Section Chair
Co-Chair of EASL’s Fine Arts and Alternative Dispute Resolution Committees
Sotheby’s Institute of Art Masters of Art Business Faculty and a founding member of Stropheus Art Law
Judith Bresler was a mentor. While I never actually worked with her, my relationship with Judith started about 15 years ago, when I began to develop my art law practice. I had not actually met Judith, but the Art Law treatise she wrote with her husband, Ralph, always remained front and center on my desk. It was the art law practitioner’s bible and the first place I looked to when I had an art law problem I needed to solve or a form I did not yet have. Some years later, when I was nominated to be the chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Art Law Committee, I immediately sought Judith out for her advice, and made sure she would stay on as a member of the ALC. Her contribution to that committee and the so-called “art bar” cannot be overstated. Over my three-year tenure, I often sought Judith’s advice and she gave it with generosity and enthusiasm. At the last lunch we had together, she spoke with her usual enthusiasm about her various non-legal writing projects. I will miss her intelligence, her warmth, and her friendship.
Steven R. Schindler
Schindler Cohen & Hochman
I am very saddened at the loss of Judith Bresler. When I succeeded to the chair of the New York City Bar Association’s Art Law Committee several years ago, after Ralph Lerner’s term ended, I inherited a very special legacy that Judith had secured. Besides her intelligence and creativity on all issues involving art law, Judith was even more importantly someone who actually listened and considered all points of view. Our respective practices and clients often caused us to take positions opposed to each other, but I was continually impressed with Judith’s attempt to forge a third way to help resolve our differences. She reached out often to try to work together on seminars and other forums so that we could educate our colleagues and members of the industry on the law and move the ball to advance our practice of law. She will surely be missed by anyone who had the privilege of knowing and working with her.
Howard N. Spiegler
Co-chair, Art Law Group, Herrick, Feinstein LLP
Judith was a friend to so many of us and she will be missed. She was a mentor to me, patiently helping me prepare for my very first public speaking engagement and giving thoughtful feedback on drafting assignments. Her reputation at Withers was one of the primary reasons I joined the firm after law school and she was instrumental in shaping my career. Witnessing the dynamic of her and her husband, Ralph, in offices next to one another were lessons for me on how to succeed as a working mom and working spouse, and for that I am forever grateful. During the last few years, it had been a privilege working with her on the next edition of the Art Law treatise, which she referred to as a “project of love.” She loved being part of our art law community and provided invaluable contributions to the field. Many of you may remember the days that she was Chair of the Entertainment, Art and Sports Law Section of the New York State Bar Association. In her memory, I hope we carry on her level of enthusiasm and support for the art community.
Partner | Global Head of Art Law, Withers Worldwide
Among the fond memories I have of Judith Bresler is the moment when we discovered and shared our mutual joy of playing piano.
We were waiting for a meeting to start at BMI, admiring the grand piano in its office lobby, when I mentioned to her that I had studied piano at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Judith said that she too “tickled the ivories.”
Accepting my spontaneous invitation to join me in a brief “four hands on one piano” session, Judith and I then jointly improvised several gems from the “Great American Songbook,” and we joked about how her husband Ralph was not part of that body of works’ famous songwriting duo of Lerner and Lowe.
When we finished, we received a round of applause from those fortunate enough to catch our act. Big smiles were all around.
As many of you know, Judith was, among many things, a tireless champion of EASL’s annual law student writing competition and scholarship named for Phil Cowan, another former Section Chair.
I am particularly pleased that the EASL Executive Committee has decided to rename our scholarship to also honor the memory of Judith Bresler. She will be missed, but remembered forever.
Immediate Past Chair, EASL