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Gallerist Accuses Christie’s of Selling Him a Fake Basquiat

Manhattan gallerist Tony Shafrazi has filed a $7 million lawsuit against Christie’s in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, alleging he was sold a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) that the auctioneer knew was a forgery. Shafrazi asserts in the Sept. 7 complaint that just days before the Feb. 23, 1990, sale,

NEW YORK—Manhattan gallerist Tony Shafrazi has filed a $7 million lawsuit against Christie’s in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, alleging he was sold a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) that the auctioneer knew was a forgery.

Shafrazi asserts in the Sept. 7 complaint that just days before the Feb. 23, 1990, sale, Christie’s staff had been told by Basquiat’s father, Gerard Jean-Baptiste Basquiat, and John Cheim, co-owner of the New York gallery Cheim & Read, that the work in question was not authentic.

At the time of the sale, the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat had not yet been established. Gerard Basquiat was then administrator of his son’s estate and later became chairman of the authentication committee, a position he still holds. Cheim was then director of the Robert Miller Gallery, New York, which then represented Basquiat’s estate. Cheim is also a member of the authentication board. He did not return calls from ARTnewsletter seeking comment on the matter.

Speaking for Christie’s, a spokeswoman said, “We believe the case has no merit.”

According to Shafrazi’s complaint, a few days before the sale Gerard Basquiat and Cheim “viewed the painting at [Christie’s] and . . . informed [Christie’s] in words and in substance that the Painting was a counterfeit and/or fake and requested that [Christie’s] withdraw the Painting from Auction or take appropriate action.” Shafrazi claims this information was “unknown to plaintiffs and intentionally concealed” by Christie’s.

Shafrazi purchased the painting, with premium, for $242,000 and included it in an exhibition at his gallery, from December 1990-February 1991, of 36 works by Basquiat and Keith Haring. In March 1991, little more than a year after buying the work, Shafrazi sold it to Guido Orsi, a collector who has joined him as a plaintiff in the suit.

Neither Shafrazi nor his lawyer Aaron Golub would comment on the lawsuit.

According to the complaint, in or about mid-2006, in preparation for an exhibition (Sept. 2006-January 2007) of Basquiat’s work to be held in Milan, Italy, Orsi submitted an application to the Basquiat committee to authenticate the painting; and on October 5, 2006, the committee stated in a letter addressed to Shafrazi’s gallery that “the painting was not a work by [Basquiat], and [Shafrazi] was advised by [Gerard Basquiat] that he and [Cheim] advised [Christie’s] Contemporary Art department,” that the work was not authentic.

Shafrazi and Orsi are asking the court for $2 million in damages. They base their claim on the steep increase in the market for Basquiat’s work; they also seek $5 million in “exemplary” damages.

Although the statute of limitations—currently six years— would have run out long ago, the plaintiffs might be entitled to collect if they could prove that Christie’s knew at the time of the auction that the work was a fake.

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