By Shlomit Heering*

A Case in Review: Neumann v. Sotheby’s, Inc., No. 652170/2018

The New York art-collecting Neumann family owns “one of the most staggering private collections of 20th-century art in the United States”, with works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso – and Jean-Michel Basquiat. 86-year-old paterfamilias Hubert Neumann has been characterized as a “hunted and haunted man” who believes that museum directors are eagerly awaiting his death in the hopes of acquiring works from his family’s collection. However, the drama surrounding the Neumann collection is not limited to outsiders. Before her death in 2016, Neumann’s wife, Dolores Ormandy Neumann, changed her last will and testament to disinherit her husband of 62 years and leave most of her personal property to their middle daughter Belinda, leaving the other two daughters with small shares. Incidentally, according to her obituary, in the 1980s Dolores was “a leading graffiti art dealer, helping them transfer their work from the trains to canvas.”

Belinda was also appointed “the preliminary executor of her mother’s estate” in 2016 and began the disposal of Dolores’ artworks by offering some of them at public auction. In April 2018, Hubert Neumann learned about Belinda’s consignment of the painting “Flesh and Spirit” by Jean-Michel Basquiat – part of the Neumann collection – to Sotheby’s, and in early May he tried to prevent Sotheby’s from selling the painting  by seeking a TRO in which court. He alleged that per a 2015 agreement, which was confirmed a year later, Sotheby’s promised him to seek his “approval on all matters relating to cataloguing, placement, and exhibiting each and every work consigned” from Neumanns. Neumann also alleged that although individual pieces in the collection are “owned by a variety of persons and entities”, they are all considered part of the Neumann Family Collection, of which he is the steward. Nevertheless, in a quick decision, New York Justice O. Peter Sherwood ruled that Neumann has no authority over the painting and that the sale could go ahead. Neumann appealed the decision on May 9th, but the First Department Appellate Division denied his motion to stay the sale, and the large, 2-panel artwork was sold as planned on May 16 – for a hammer price of just over $30.7 million.

The Ghost of Basquiat

Jean Michel Basquiat died in 1988, at the age of 27, from a heroin overdose. According to the recollections of his friends and colleagues, Jean-Michel was an intensely talented and unique artist working in NY and CA, side by side with Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and other contemporaries. The artist’s life has been examined in a number of interviews and documentaries, both during his lifetime and posthumously. This spring a new documentary, directed by Sara Driver, offers yet another look at the formative years of the artist. Titled “Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat”, the 2018 film alternates “archival footage from the late 1970s and early ’80s with newly shot interviews”, interspersed with songs from the period. Although similar in style to the earlier documentary, one crucial difference is that, for all the footage of Basquiat included in the film, the viewer never hears his voice. In an interview with NPR, the director explains that this was a purposeful choice: “I wanted him like a ghost in the movie, that he was a touchstone throughout the film for this kind of greater environment which helped create who he was”. As interpreted by a New York Times review, this also serves as a way to emphasize the fact that “Basquiat’s art — raw, inventive, socially engaged — continues to speak to us even as the artist himself cannot”.

According to another review of the 2018 film, Driver’s new documentary is an excellent counterpoint to Tamra Davis’ 2010 documentary “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” and Julian Schnabel’s 1996 eponymous biopicBasquiat.

WYWH: You’ve Been Served: “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” (2010)

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On May 22, the Center for Art Law hosted an evening screening of the 2010 documentary “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” at the AC Institute in Midtown. Combining original documentary footage, including an informal interview with Basquiat, with recent interviews with the artist’s former friends and colleagues, the film provided a fascinating insight into Basquiat’s complicated life and shed some light on the circumstances that influenced his art – and his early death. Not assuming that the average viewer would be familiar with all the details of Basquiat’s biography, the film explained his background and how this gifted young man from a middle-class Brooklyn family went from a runaway street artist living off cheese doodles and couchsurfing between (girl)friends to the “it” artist receiving commissions from wealthy collectors and forming a close relationship with Andy Warhol. Rather than focusing solely on the excitement of his meteoric rise, the film deftly explored the dark side of such a trajectory, including Basquiat’s insecurities and the accompanying isolation he experienced, which contributed to his increasing drug use and eventual overdose.

Following the screening of this moving and enlightening documentary, lawyers Dean Nicyper, head of Withers Bergman Dispute Resolution Group in the United States, and Andrew Gerber, founding partner at Kushnirsky Gerber PLLC, led a discussion about some of the legal issues connected to Basquiat’s work. Mr. Nicyper first spoke about authentication and challenges in the process. He explained that, although decisions about authenticity are essentially opinions, the advance of forensics has allowed some experts to positively identify works as authentic, rather than simply being able to deny works as fake. He also spoke about a long-pending bill in New York that would protect authenticators from baseless lawsuits that have a detrimental effect on the authentication community. Basquiat’s Estate, for example, stopped authenticating works in 2012. Andy Warhol Authentication Committee disbanded in [ ].  Mr. Gerber, meanwhile, focused on issues specific to street art. He touched upon recent cases and matters such as copyright, ownership, and use of street art. He also provided some insight into what constitutes street art and what street artists hope to accomplish within the broader art world, based on his personal experience. According to one of the dealers who represented Basquiat and enabled his artistic career, Basquiat was not a street artist at all. Photographs of him holding spray cans and tagging walls of buildings suggest otherwise. Both Mr. Nicyper and Mr. Gerber answered numerous questions from a varied audience that was engaged in the conversation and interested in learning more.

Overall, this was an evening of plentiful snacks, a fascinating documentary, topical speakers, and people from various personal and professional backgrounds coming together to bask in all that is Jean-Michel Basquiat and art law.

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About the Author: Shlomit Heering is a Center for Art Law 2018 Summer Intern. She holds an MA from University College London in Cultural Heritage Studies and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Ancient History and Anthropology. She is an incoming NYU JD Candidate, Class of 2021.