A lawsuit filed last Friday against the New York-based Keith Haring Foundation by a group of collectors is the latest in a string of high-profile legal battles underscoring how thorny the business of art authentication has become. In the recent case, a group of nine plaintiffs sued the Haring Foundation, seeking up to $40 million in damages for “wrongfully destroying the value of a series of paintings created by the deceased artist Keith Haring” by having “publicly labeled the works ‘counterfeit’ and ‘fake’,” according to the claim. The foundation “repeatedly ignored and failed to review the information provided by Plaintiffs that establishes the provenance of the works, and… is critical to their authentication,” the suit alleges.
In 2007, the complaint says, 41 works purported to be by Keith Haring that were submitted to the authentication board were rejected as “Not Authentic,” though the foundation “left the door open to revisiting these opinions,” according to the claim. The sources of these works, according to the claim, were two friends of Haring: a DJ named Angelo Moreno, and a graffiti artist named Delta Cortez who knew Haring “when the two were graffiti artists leaving their respective tags throughout the New York City subway system,” court papers state. Moreno claimed Haring had left dozens of works with him, and Moreno and Cortez sold these works starting in the late 90s.
The works submitted in 2007 were never certified. Five years later, in September 2012, the Haring authentication committee was dissolved, with the foundation stating that it wished to focus on its charitable mission. The Haring committee was one of several artist authentication committees—including those for Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat —that were dissolved in recent years. The Warhol Foundation conceded that its decision was a direct result of exorbitant litigation costs to defend against claims from dissatisfied collectors. In some cases, independent experts have refrained from publicly ruling on a work, even those they believe are outright fakes, for fear of the liability associated with such weighty decisions. But none of that seems to have stemmed the tide of lawsuits over disputed works, especially when a blue-chip artist with a skyrocketing market is involved.
The current impasse has left some collectors reeling since major auction houses typically require a seal of approval before they will agree to sell a work. In the case of Haring, that mark of authenticity is obviously of considerable value. His works have fetched millions of dollars at auctions, with the current record for a painting at $2.8 million, set at a Christie’s New York auction in 2007, for an untitled painting from 1982.
Last spring, Moreno and Cortez’s 41 works, along with dozens of other pieces purported to be by Haring, were included in a show in Miami, “Haring Miami: A Celebration of the Life & Art of Keith Haring,” held at the Moore Building and opened to the public on March 6.
Two days later the Haring foundation filed suit against the organizers of the show, known as Colored Thumb, charging that the overwhelming majority of works in the show “are not genuine Haring artworks. Rather they are fakes, forgeries, counterfeits and/or infringements.” The show organizers and the foundation agreed to entry of an order from a Miami court under which all but ten of the works were removed from the Moore Building show along with all copies of the brochure and catalogs. The latter were ordered destroyed.
In the complaint, the foundation laid out its mission as “the successor-in-interest to and owner of the intellectual property of Keith Haring, the world famous artist. The Haring Foundation’s mission is to sustain, expand, and protect the legacy of Keith Haring, his art, and his ideals.” This case was settled a few days ago.
The more recent lawsuit brought against the Haring Foundation last Friday specifies a total of 93 works. The plaintiffs include collectors: Elizabeth Bilinski, George Lathouras, Lisa Cubisino, Jacqueline Petruzzelli, Anthony Petruzzelli, Arthur Canario, Geraldine Biehl, and Jesus Ramos. Also listed as a plaintiff is Chelsea art dealer Lucas Schoormans who was “Larry Gagosian’s right-hand man during the period when Haring first became commercially popular,” according to the complaint.
On February 25, the Haring Foundation released a statement about the case, noting that the foundation and its trustees were sued “by several plaintiffs who claim, among other things, that the Foundation injured them when works, allegedly owned by them and purporting to be by the hand of Keith Haring, were submitted to the Keith Haring Studio LLC, to determine their authenticity. They were determined to be not authentic.”
It was not clear if the foundation was referring to only the 41 works submitted to it in 2007, or the entire group of 93 pieces included as exhibits to the current complaint. The Haring Foundation did not respond to requests for clarification. According to the statement: “the Foundation will make no further comment about the matter at this time.”
As part of their efforts to shore up support for authenticating the work, Bilinski and Schoormans enlisted Art Access & Research, a UK firm, to perform scientific analysis on two of their works. The report found that “no materials of undoubted introduction post-dating the death of Haring in 1990 were detected.”
However, as has been demonstrated in other high profile cases, even scientific analysis has failed to settle or silence authenticity-related disputes. In the recent forgery scandal involving the now-shuttered Knoedler & Company gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, one defendant’s law firm initially said it planned to challenge forensic analysis performed by Orion Analytical, a highly respected materials analysis firm that found works that were purported to be by Abstract Expressionist masters like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell were forgeries created decades later. The firm quietly dropped that strategy when it was publicly confirmed that a little-known painter in Queens, NY, had created the works in his garage, and was the source of dozens of paintings sold for more than $80 million.
The complaint against the Haring Foundation alleges that the withdrawal of works from the Miami show and “libelous public statements” resulted in the inability to sell the works. Noting that the Foundation had only ever viewed transparencies of only some of the works in question, the plaintiffs allege the Foundation “failed to review the information provided by Plaintiffs that establishes the provenance of the works” before publicly labeling the works as “counterfeit” and “fake.”
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