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a Native American, whose land was held in a government trust, he was able to take the buyer to court and have the deal rescinded.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.

In recent art news, a vibrant painting of a skull, “Untitled” (1982), by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s last Thursday evening and earned the distinction of becoming the sixth most expensive work ever sold at auction.  With last week’s sale, only ten other works have surpassed the $100 million mark.

The buyer of the Basquiat painting was Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa who identified himself as the successful bidder through a recent post on his social media account.  In his post, Maezawa said “I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece” and added “[w]hen I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art.  I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.”

Incidentally, it was Maezawa who set the previous auction high for Basquiat in which he paid $57.3 million for the late artist’s 1982 painting of a horned devil at Christie’s last year.

This latest Basquiat acquisition by Maezawa is intended for a planned museum in his hometown of Chiba, Japan.  Maezawa said in a statement that “[b]ut before then I wish to loan this piece—which has been unseen by the public for more than 30 years—to institutions and exhibitions around the world.”

It remains to be seen as to whether one art collector makes a market as it will take another significant Basquiat work to test the sustainability of this $100 million level.

It was reported that Basquiat’s “Untitled” painting set a number of records last Thursday night at Sotheby’s postwar and contemporary auction of which include “for a work by any American artist, for a work by an African-American artist[,] and as the first work created since 1980 to make over $100 million.”

Last year, according to Artprice, Basquiat became the highest-grossing American artist at auction, generating over $170 million in sales from 80 works, and the artist’s auction high has increased an impressive tenfold in the last 15 years.

Sotheby’s auction last week fetched a total of $319 million against a low estimate of $211 million with 96 percent of the 50 lots sold in which 60 percent of the lots reached prices above their estimates.  Contributing to its success, Sotheby’s had a number of works in the “middle range around $5 million to $10 million” that were attractive to the market.

 

Richard Polsky writes:

As the owner of Richard Polsky Art Authentication, I’ve always believed that authenticity is the bedrock of any art transaction, which seems to have been proven out by the constant stream of related articles in the New York Times. During the last six months alone, we’ve been treated to the spectacle of the Knoedler gallery scandal for selling fake canvases by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others. Then there was the dealer Mary Boone pulling a bait and switch of a Ross Bleckner painting on the actor Alec Baldwin. This was followed by London’s James Mayor Gallery suing the Pace Gallery, over their rejection of 13 Agnes Martin works that they once sold, for inclusion in the catalog raisonne that Pace is in the process of compiling.

Recently, we expanded beyond our core business of exclusively authenticating the work of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. We now offer a “Preliminary Opinion” service, which will focus on the work of 39 significant Post-War & Contemporary artists — and Georgia O’Keeffe. Rather than an in-depth authentication analysis, our new concept is to offer a client a credible, but affordable opinion, on the probability of a painting being genuine or not.

The logic behind branching out into 40 additional artists is based on the complete abandonment of authentication responsibilities by virtually every major artist’s estate. As followers of the art world know, the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board closed up shop five years ago. Their decision was almost entirely based on incurring millions of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves against lawsuits, brought by disgruntled clients whose works were rejected. Immediately following the Warhol board’s announcement, the authentication committees for Roy Lichtenstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and others, all followed suit. Each of them cited the same reason; fear of being sued.

In 2015, when I sent out an announcement that I had formed an art authentication company, I was immediately inundated with inquires, all asking the same thing, “How are you going to protect yourself from being sued?” The simple answer was by being completely transparent (though I still have the client sign a disclaimer). When a collector signed a release with the Warhol estate, he agreed to allow them to stamp the back of his painting with the word “Denied,” if they concluded it was a fake. When the collector wanted to know why it was rejected, he was given the unsatisfying answer, “We can’t tell you because we don’t want to aid counterfeiters.” While most owners simply shrugged, a number of people felt they were treated unfairly, and took action. My guess is that if the Warhol people had just leveled with these painting owners, much of the litigation, which led to their ultimate demise, could have been avoided.

Part of my motivation for starting Richard Polsky Art Authentication was the opportunity to be involved with something that was intellectually satisfying. I enjoy using a body of knowledge that I had acquired from many years of studying art. Additionally, I frequently found myself smiling after informing a client that his Warhol was the real deal; having to tell a client his painting was a fake wasn’t a good feeling. Not surprisingly, those who owned authentic pictures never failed to compliment my skill and acumen; those on the other end of the stick thought I was ignorant. But one of the unforeseen pleasures of the art authentication business was that I was now in a position to give something back to the art world. I decided to offer our services to university art museums on a pro bono basis. Recently, we were asked by Oxford University to examine a small Keith Haring sketch that was given to them — and it happily turned out to be genuine.


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.