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Authentication Committees Disband: Warhol 2011, Basquiat 2012, Who’s Next?

On January 7, 2012, the Authentication Committee of the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988) (“The Committee”) announced its intention to disband next September. Basquiat, an influential Neo-expressionist artist, died at the age of 27, months after the passing of Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987). The two artists collaborated on numerous paintings together. Each left an important legacy, and their works rose in popularity among art collectors and art investors.

Basquiat’s estate, administered by Gerard Basquiat, father of the artist, holds the legal rights and interests in Jean-Michel’s works.  The estate’s website explains that the Committee has existed for eighteen years and has reviewed over 2,000 works of art. The reason for closing shop would be the belief that the Committee “has fulfilled its goal of providing the public with an opportunity to obtain an opinion as to the authenticity of works purportedly created by Jean-Michel Basquiat.”

The announcement comes just a few months after Andy Warhol Foundation’s announcement to disband the Warhol Authentication service. What are the real reason for this decision? Is there a “Double Denied” equivalent among the Basquiat works? Are we seeing a trend among authentication boards?

The December 2011 issue of the Art Newspaper includes a report about effects of legal actions on independent expertise and authentication issues. Incidentally, it turns out that there have been issues involving authentication of Basquiats. Apparently, the owner of Basquiat’s Fuego Flores (1983), purchased from Sotheby’s in 2009 for the hammer price of 959,650 pounds or over $1,300,000, sued the Basquiat authentication board because it declined to rule the work genuine. The owner was seeking damages of up to $5 million. Subsequently, the lawsuit was dismissed and the work was deemed authentic.

Theoretically, authentication boards should be indifferent to what happens to the commercial value of art as a result of finding works inauthentic. However, the significant monetary loss that collectors suffer from having their investments discredited predictably leads to prohibitively expensive legal actions. For example, The Warhol Foundation reported that its Double Denied victory came with the price tag of about $7 million. Even carefully drafted exculpatory language in submission for authentication agreements cannot guarantee experts immunity from allegations of disparagement of title, unfair competition, or libel. The cost of defending authentication decisions in court is the likely explanation why authentication boards may be closing.

Ultimately the toll of losing authentication board services and assurances is to be born by the art market. Art experts will have to be more careful and probably price works more conservatively. Ironically, galleries and auction houses that have relied heavily on the authentication boards for an imprimatur of approval to justify record-setting prices for Warhols and Basquiats are endangering their very existence.

Select Sources: Gallerist NY; ArtINFO