A high court in Paris last month opened and adjourned a case brought by the graffiti artist John Perello, in which he alleged that Warren Levy, a little-known, occasional dealer, had sold, since 2010, around two dozen paintings falsely attributed to the artist. The 50-year-old, who goes by the name JonOne, started his career tagging the streets and subways of New York in the 1980s before moving to Paris in 1987. A prolific artist, Perello produces more than 200 paintings a year, describing himself as an Abstract Expressionist inspired by popular culture, Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock. As JonOne, he is one of the top names in the European graffiti scene.
The case is relatively small beer in financial terms: the paintings in question were sold by Levy to various collectors for a total of €33,750, according to Perello’s lawyers. But the case marks a turning point in the progress of graffiti from the fringes to the mainstream of contemporary art. Until quite recently, a graffiti artist was more likely to be seen in court as a defendant on vandalism charges than as a plaintiff in a forgery case.
Fakes still on the market
“I would have thought that forgers would be more interested in copying [the important 20th-century, French-born artists] César or Arman rather than a mere graffiti artist,” Perello told The Art Newspaper after the hearing. But prices at auction for graffiti and street art have been generally buoyant since 2008. On 5 February, the Parisian auction house Artcurial is due to offer 17 works by JonOne, with estimates averaging around €25,000 but rising as high as €70,000 (for his painting R.I.P. Rest in Peace, 1991). “Graffiti is steadily going up in value,” says Arnaud Oliveux, the auction house’s graffiti expert.
Perello is not alone in being targeted by forgers, Oliveux says. “To my knowledge, there have been fakes of works by Blade, Crash and Cope2 [all New York-based graffiti artists], as well as JonOne, in circulation,” he says.
Marie-Pompéi Cullin, a lawyer at the firm Szpiner Toby Ayela Semerdjian, representing Perello, says the case followed a two-year investigation that identified 23 fake paintings, allegedly sold by Levy to more than half a dozen collectors. Francis Szpiner, a partner at the firm, says that 12 of the works had been destroyed and 11 confiscated, but he told the French newspaper Le Monde that there are certainly more in circulation.
Levy, 26, denies any intent to defraud and denies selling any paintings to collectors. He said that he bought a job lot of works from a stall at the Porte de Vanves flea market, a small weekly street market in southern Paris, in 2010, and resold them to a gallery soon after. When asked to name them, he said he could not. “It was so long ago. I am not a dealer,” he said. “I make my living in a sandwich bar.”
The courts set the next hearing for 25 June, to allow Levy’s lawyer more time to prepare his defence.