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Jean-Michel Basquiat

Dealers circle Basquiat’s estate

There are “all kinds of rumours swirling” around the estate of the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

New York

“Every dealer from here to China would like to work with the estate,” says Alberto Mugrabi, a New York-based art collector and dealer in Basquiat’s work. “It’s prestigious for a dealer to represent an estate like that,” says the secondary-market dealer Christophe Van de Weghe, who would “of course” be interested in the job.

The artist’s market has never been more lucrative. Last May, Christie’s set a record for the artist at auction with the $48.8m sale of Dustheads, 1982 (est $25m-$35m), and in November, auction houses in New York sold seven works for a total of $92.6m in one week of evening sales. This included $29.3m for Untitled, 1982 (est $25m-$35m), at Christie’s, and $25.9m for Untitled (Yellow Tar and Feathers), 1982 (est $15m-$20m), at Sotheby’s.

Basquiat’s estate, meanwhile, is in disarray. The estate, which is embroiled in a tax battle with the Internal Revenue Service, has been managed by the artist’s sisters, Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, since the death of its longtime administrator Gerard Basquiat, the artist’s father, last year.

“I’m sure they want their brother’s legacy to shine, but the market may not be their main concern,” says Amy Cappellazzo, the former Christie’s chairman turned private dealer. The sisters seem more focused on licensing and copyright than on sales of paintings, say some in the trade. The estate sells its own range of clothing online, and charges for licensing agreements with firms including Uniqlo and Valentino.

The sisters have “no interest in talking, selling or showing”, Mugrabi says. This has left a space in which dealers are beginning to exert themselves. Some key figures are pushing for a catalogue raisonné: its authors would wield significant power over Basquiat’s market, particularly given that the estate closed its authentication board in 2012. They would also gain access to valuable information. “If one creates the catalogue raisonné, one will be dealing with the collectors and institutions that own the work, and will have the inside track as to where it’s all located,” says the art adviser Todd Levin. “As with real estate, [this is about] location, location, location. One will know where the bones are buried.”

Although the de facto catalogue, produced by the art dealer Enrico Navarra in 1996, is “very good”, Van de Weghe says, it omits around 300 of the estimated 900 paintings that Basquiat made, as well as most of the 3,500 drawings.

There is also a need for more regulation, some say. The number of fakes on the market has been rising in tandem with the artist’s prices. Navarra says that he receives (and declines) requests to authenticate works purportedly by Basquiat around once a week.

So who might take on the task? The art dealer John Cheim, formerly a member of the Basquiat authentication committee, says he would like to be involved. He names as potential collaborators Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the curator Richard Marshall and Robert Storr. A new catalogue “is important for artists and people who want to study Basquiat’s work, not just for the art market”, Deitch says.

Nonetheless, some caution against dealers taking too much control. “Catalogues raisonnés are scholarly projects and dealers can help to subsidise them, but if you just hand the whole thing over, it’s an invitation to mischief,” Storr says.

Neither sister could be reached for comment.

Supply depleted after father sold works

The estate’s supply of works painted or owned by the artist has dwindled in recent years. The late Gerard Basquiat sold several important paintings to pay his tax bills, including Untitled (Stardust), 1983, which sold at Sotheby’s New York for $7.2m (est $1.8m-$2.5m) in May 2010, and a collaboration with Andy Warhol, Untitled (Zenith 1/2), 1984, which sold in the same auction for $2.7m (est $2m-$3m). “To my knowledge, they don’t have any major paintings left,” Van de Weghe says. “They have a lot of good paintings, but not A+ paintings.”

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 254 February 2014