By Chris Michaels, Esq.
Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1960, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a contemporary American artist, who started his career as a graffiti artist in the mid-1970s working in and around the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He gained popularity in the art world in the early 80s when his first solo art show opened in 1981. It was also in 1981 that Artforum magazine published a feature on Basquiat, effectively bringing his work into the mainstream. Basquiat’s art received widespread critical acclaim and in 1985 The New York Times Magazine featured the artist on their cover. Three years later, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988 at the age of 27. His popularity continued and grew after his death; today Basquiat’s work continues to bring in huge sums at auction. For example, in May of 2013 his painting, Dustheads, sold for $48.8 million at auction.
After the artist’s death, his estate established a committee to review and determine authenticity of works thought to be Basquiat. The authentication work was directed by the artist’s father, Gerard Basquiat, with assistance from a former curator of American Art at the Whitney Museum. As of September 2012, the authentication committee disbanded. (Read our report on the phenomenon of closing authentication committees here.)
Basquiat’s estate is currently administered by his sisters, Jeanine Basquiat Heriveaux and Lisane Basquiat, who in their roles as administrators are currently suing the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that their brother’s estate was overvalued. (Read: Untitled but Taxable.) The sisters took over the suit, which was originally filed by their father Gerard, after Gerard died. The origins of the IRS suit began when Sotheby’s originally valued Basquiat’s mother’s half of the estate at $36 million. Death taxes were paid by Gerard using the Sotheby’s valuation of the estate. The IRS, however, later valued the estate at $138 million, significantly increasing the amount of death taxes owed by the estate, and imposing nearly $2 million in penalties. The IRS suit is on the docket for a hearing by the United States Tax Court in April of 2014.
With April only weeks away, on 4 March 2014, Basquiat’s sisters filed a claim against the auction house Christie’s, Inc. (“Christie’s”), alleging it was attempting to sell inauthentic Basquiat items. The Complaint concerns publication Christie’s 148-page sales catalogue entitled “Jean-Michel Basquiat: Works From The Collection of Alexis Adler.” The catalogue was published in mid-February 2014 and was created to publicize the auction house’s March 2014 sale of approximately 50 items that Christie’s attributed to/listed as created by Basquiat.
The source of the collection featured in the catalogue purportedly comes from Alexis Adler, a woman with whom Basquiat had a relationship and lived with for time between 1979 and 1980 in New York. The collection that Christie’s accepted on consignment for sale was allegedly left behind by Basquiat in the apartment he shared with Adler.
Prior to the catalogue being published, in 2007, Adler attempted to have seven items in her possession authenticated by the Estate’s Authentication Committee. At the time, six out of the seven items were, in fact, determined to be authentic Basquiat works. Nevertheless, according to the Complaint, at no time did Adler or Christie’s attempt to authenticate the rest of the items in her collection.
If, by way of example, Christie’s had in fact submitted the collection to the Estate for authentication and it declined to authenticate some of the items, a proposed New York State bill, if passed, would afford the Estate greater protection if Christie’s then decided to sue for improper/negligent denial of authenticity. Proposed New York State legislation, §13.04 of the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, outlines specific protection for people or entities that qualify and are sued as “authenticators.” Under the bill, an “authenticator” is defined in two ways: 1) “a person or entity recognized in the visual arts community has having expertise on the artist or work of fine art with respect to whom such person or entity renders an opinion in good faith as to the authenticity, attribution or authorship of a work of fine art”; or 2) “a person or entity recognized in the visual arts community or scientific community as having expertise in uncovering facts that serve as a direct basis, in whole or in part, for an opinion as to the authenticity, attribution or authorship of a work of fine art.”
Notably, under the proposed bill, an authenticator shall not include “a person or entity that has a financial interest in the work of fine art for which such opinion is rendered. . . .” The proposed bill does, however, allow for an authenticator to be compensated for their efforts relating to their authenticating a work.
Under the proposed bill, if a suit is brought against an authenticator that relates to the authenticator’s opinion concerning a work of art, the claimant must: 1) specify with particularity in the complaint facts sufficient to support each element of the claim or claims asserted; and 2) prove the elements of the claim or claims by clear and convincing evidence. As further protection for authenticators in civil claims, if the authenticator prevails in the action, he, she, or it may recover reasonable attorney’s fees, costs and expenses.
When the catalogue for the online auction was published, however, a notice on the last page was included which read, “All artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat: © 2014 the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, New York.”
In the Complaint, Basquiat’s sisters allege that Christie’s included the above-mentioned notice to deceive potential bidders into thinking that all of the items for sale were authenticated by the committee. In addition, plaintiffs/or their first names allege that Christie’s included the notice to increase the auction prices in order to maximize its revenue from the sale. At the time, the Complaint noted that allowing the sale to continue would serve to damage the Basquiat Estate by putting into the marketplace items of questionable authenticity, which will in turn decrease the value of works actually created by Basquiat.
The plaintiffs in this case are seeking, among other things, a minimum of $1 million in damages and injunctive relief restraining Christie’s from using the Estate’s name in any credits without the Estate’s prior written consent. Plaintiffs’ claims for relief include, but are not limited to, false endorsement, false advertising, deceptive trade practices, and unfair competition.
Plaintiffs are represented by Cinque & Cinque, P.C. law firm in New York. Christie’s has yet to enter its appearance. However, on March 9, 2014, Christie’s postponed the Basquiat auction pending the outcome of this case. No amended complaint was filed as of March 24, 2014. An Initial Pre-Trial Conference is scheduled for May 2, 2014.
- Complaint – Heriveaux v. Christies, Inc., 14-cv-1446 (S.D.N.Y. filed Mar. 4, 2014).
- Video: Alexis Adler explaining her relationship with Basquiat and the origins of some of Basquiat’s work: http://www.okayplayer.com/news/jean-michel-basquiats-unseen-works.html
- Bill No. S06794: http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?default_fld=&bn=S06794&term=2013&Summary=Y&Actions=Y&Text=Y
- IRS Dispute: http://galleristny.com/2013/11/basquiats-family-is-suing-the-irs/
- Authentication Committee: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-09-29/news/1996273100_1_specific-artists-contemporary-artists-artist-widow/2
- Christie’s Catalogue, available at http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/salebrowse.aspx?intSaleid=24702&viewType=list
About the Author: Chris Michaels is a litigation attorney in the Philadelphia office of the Atlanta, GA-based law firm, Cruser & Mitchell, LLP, where he actively pursues his interest in the field of art law. He may be reached at 518-421-7238, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @CMichaels88.
Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.