A sculptural frame attributed to Jean Michel-Basquiat and offered in 2017 at TEFAF for $3 million has been revealed as the work of Austrian musician and artist André Heller. Is this a case of foiled art forgery or a “childish prank,” as the artist described it this week to German press?
Heller glued sketches by Basquiat to strips of wood, applied red paint, and hammered nails and pieces of a black broom handle; a genuine portrait by Basquiat, acquired by Heller in 1990, was placed in the frame, Austrian news magazine Falter reported Tuesday.
“In retrospect, the whole thing is, firstly, a childish prank. Secondly, it is naturally showing off. And thirdly, it is a stupid mixture of fiction and truth,” Heller told Falter . “Just a private fairy tale.”
The work, “Untitled (Frame)”, 1987, was offered by the Viennese gallery Wienerroither & Kohlbacher at the art fair, which is known for its exquisite selection of blue-chip wares and antiques. The drawing and frame were listed for sale at $2 and $3 million, respectively. A buyer was not found at the time.
The article cited a conversation between Heller and Basquiat expert and art historian Dieter Buchhart, in which the two discussed the frame. Heller said that he claimed “only once” in conversation with Buchhart that the frame was made by Basquiat. When asked why he lied, Heller responded that “Buchhart gave the impression that he was the best Basquiat connoisseur on the planet.” So, Heller added, he wanted to “test” Buchhart’s expertise with the frame.
It was plausible—Heller had met Basquiat in 1987. Buchhart, speaking to Falter, appeared shocked to learn that the frame was not an authentic Basquiat.
“Then [Heller] lied to me, he said. “That’s unbelievable.”
In a statement to ARTnews, Buchhart said:
“As part of an interview with André Heller conducted on 1 June 2016, Heller stated that the fabrication of a frame containing small pieces of drawings by Basquiat had been created by Basquiat. I did not authenticate the frame and never claimed to have done so.”
Though the piece failed to sell at TEFAF, the Basquiat-Heller amalgam eventually attracted interest from collectors. Viennese artist manager Amir Shariat bought the drawing from the gallery for a customer and the frame was returned to Heller — until Shariat’s client purchased it in 2018, according to Falter’s research, for 800,000 euros.
Heller maintains that no sales contract involving the frame included a certificate of authenticity and Heller’s attorney said in a statement that both Heller and the gallery considered it a frame with Basquiat sketches independently attached.
Shariat, in his interview, rebuked this defense: “The frame was from Basquiat. That’s what Heller said.”
For his part, Heller has refuted any allegations of forgery and has since bought the frame back.