Richard Polsky writes:
The ramifications from last May’s sale at Sotheby’s of a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, for $110 million, continue to reverberate. It made the buyer, Yusaku Maezawa, an art world household name. It led to the current “One Basquiat” exhibition, of the now-iconic canvas, at the Brooklyn Museum. It also provoked a multitude of Basquiat owners into believing their paintings were worth far more than they actually were. And, finally, the sale unleashed a slew of fake Basquiats onto the market.
It reminds me of what occurred back in 1990, when the famous Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, known as “Sue,” was discovered. Those who remember the story will recall how the most complete and best-preserved specimen of its type was found on the South Dakota ranch of Maurice Williams. After the dinosaur was unearthed, Williams unwittingly sold it for $5,000. But because he was a Native American, whose land was held in a government trust, he was able to take the buyer to court and have the deal rescinded. Once Williams got his mega-fossil back, he ultimately consigned it to Sotheby’s, who sold it to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for $8.3 million.
After the sale went down, I spoke to Henry Galiano, a well-regarded paleontologist and fossil dealer. As he put it, “You wouldn’t believe all the calls I’m getting from ranchers claiming they have dinosaur bones on their property. Usually, they turn out to be cow bones. People think all you have to do is find a skeleton, hitch a chain to it and yank it out of the ground, and you have a million dollars! They’re all a bunch of ‘dinosaur dreamers.”
The equivalent is currently happening in the art market; a plethora of “Basquiat dreamers” have emerged. Since last May’s sale of one of the artist’s two greatest “Skull” pictures (the other is at The Broad), facsimiles of Basquiats continue to show up in our email. They’re sent by owners seeking guidance on whether they’re genuine. Sometimes, these digital images are outright laughable. More often than not, they bear a passing resemblance to a real Basquiat, but fail to capture the distinct personality of the painter. What all of these works have in common is they always include a depiction of a gold crown. It’s as if the creator seized upon the painter’s well-known icon and assumed by placing it somewhere within the composition, an alchemical process would occur and — voila! — you’d have a genuine Basquiat.
Just as a forger includes a crown, a seller often includes a story about how the work was acquired directly from Basquiat. Hoping to bring street cred to his pitch, he often refers to it as a cash-and-carry deal, so Basquiat could buy drugs — hence there was no paperwork. The potential buyer often nods his head, wanting to believe what he’s just heard, because he too knows Basquiat had a heroin problem. It makes him feel like an insider. After all, this is the art market, where one has to be an insider to get the good deals.
Regardless of all the scams out there, it’s important to point out that genuine Basquiats do emerge from time to time. Last year, through the organization POBA, we were asked to authenticate a large drawing which belonged to someone from Basquiat’s inner circle. Everything checked out and another important drawing took its place within Basquiat’s canon. It’s also worth mentioning that there are numerous authentic Basquiats which were never officially authenticated by the Basquiat estate. Many of these are documented in books and gallery exhibition catalogs. But a surprising number are not illustrated anywhere — yet are right as rain.
Inevitably, all of the hype surrounding the $110 Million Basquiat will dissipate. Assuming the art market continues on its upward trajectory, eventually another major Basquiat painting will break the record held by Mr. Maezawa. But until that happens, we will remain in a period where a steady flow of fake Basquiats keep popping up like varmints in a game of Whack-a-Mole. And just like the plastic moles, which aren’t real, most of these paintings won’t be real either.
Richard Polsky has accumulated forty years of expertise in the contemporary art world as a gallery owner, author of multiple books on the art market, lecturer, and provider of litigation support. Richard Polsky Art Authentication can be viewed at www.RichardPolskyart.com.