“Sure, There’ve Been Fakes” So far there is no formal apparatus, set up by either the Basquiat estate or any group of inde-pendent experts, to authenticate the artist’s works, as there is for Andy Warhol. Tracking Basquiats is difficult, since he gave away a lot of work early on to broke friends and frequently sold drawings for cigarette money. As his fame increased, his garbage was regularly rifled for discarded art. “A lot of his work wasn’t signed,” notes critic Diego Cortez.
The estate says it hopes to establish a commit-tee of five or six experts, but “difficult relation-ships between them have so far thwarted the plan,” according to a source close to the estate. “We’re doing it informally,” says John Cheim, director of the Robert Miller Gallery. “We’ll give our opinion if somebody brings something in, but we’re not stamping anything.” “There’s not one recognized expert with that kind of art world authority,” opines Christie’s Diane Upright.
“I’ve only seen fake works on paper,” says Jeffrey Deitch, a former adviser to the estate. “The quantities of fakes are way exaggerated.”
Though rumors abound, the sources of these . counterfeits remain mostly elusive. “There was a young graffiti artist selling some Basquiat and Keith Haring fakes back in 1986 and 1987,” notes Mary-Ann Monforton, director of New York’s Klarfeld Perry Gallery and an early collector of Basquiat, Haring and Kenny Scharf. (Monforton declines to name the alleged forger for publication.) ”
At the secondary-dealer level; sure, there’ve been fakes,” says Michael Ward Stout, the Basquiat estate’s attorney. “It’s always a problem with famous artists. Just look at Dali.”
“If they came from me, they have an inventory number and usually a photograph,” says Annina Nosei, Basquiat’s first New York dealer. Nosei used to meet informally with Vrej Baghoomian, the artist’s last New York dealer, to determine the authenticity of questioned works, an arrangement that ended before Baghoomian’s disappearance last spring. “I’ve seen some fakes,” notes Nosei, “but they’re extremely easy to recognize. Some of them are a joke. People thought they were Jean-Michel and could make a face, a crown and some scribbling. But his works always had a meaning, a set of signs that meant something. For myself and Vrej, it was very easy to see. Vrej knew how to dis-tinguish between a real Basquiat and a fake Basquiat.” Nosei adds that Baghoomian turned over to the FBI a group of Basquiat fakes that sur-faced in the fall of 1988, after the artist’s death. “It was then that we decided to do it [authenticating] formally together and ask for a minimal fee.”
But as with any authentication of a well-known artist, all is not so cut and dried. Robert Lococo and George Mulder, fine art publishers based in New York and St. Louis, consigned a Basquiat painted wood construction from circa 1982 to Christie’s this May. The vivid image of a gap-toothed black busi-nessman with a briefcase was allotted a full color page in the catalogue and was estimated at $35,000 to $45,000. But the untitled work was withdrawn by the owners prior to the sale after questions arose about its authenticity.
“It was very strange,” recalls Lococo. “I brought a transparency to Christie’s, and they loved it. Then I got a call from them, and they wanted to know where George got the piece from. Well, he bought it directly from Jean-Michel. We knew it was a straight piece. I wanted to know who ques-tioned the piece and found out it was the Robert Miller Gallery and Annina Nosei. So I got both of them on the phone, and they backed down.”
Lococo says he and Mulder decided to with-draw the work anyway. “My fear was, if it was sold, the buyer might have gone back to Miller, and the piece could get burned. The way I see it, Annina didn’t sell the piece so she didn’t make any money. Miller didn’t like the price because it was much too low. They can quash the few deals that are out there. I’m not desperate to sell it. I’ll just hang it up and enjoy it.”
“The wooden assemblage piece at Christie’s was quite definitely not correct,” counters Robert Miller’s Cheim. “We said as much, and it was with-drawn.” Nosei concurred with Miller and also had contacted Christie’s when she saw the piece in their May catalogue. Stout reports that Gerard Basquiat also said the work was not his son’s. Christie’s declines to comment, citing client confidentiality.