Judge Throws Out a Collector’s Claim to Halt Sotheby’s Planned Sale of a $30 Million Basquiat

Hubert Neumann was unable to convince a judge that he had a right to the painting.

Jean-Michel Basquiat Flesh and Spirit (1982–83). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

You know what they say: The sale must go on.

At least, that’s what a New York State judge concluded in a decision today. He ruled that Sotheby’s could proceed with its planned sale of a major Jean-Michel Basquiat painting and threw out a family member’s attempt to halt the sale. The judge determined that the collector, Hubert Neumann, had no rights to the painting whatsoever.

Neumann filed a lawsuit against Sotheby’s last week to block the planned auction of Flesh and Spirit (1982–83), which is estimated to sell in the region of $30 million at Sotheby’s contemporary evening auction on May 16. The painting was consigned by representatives of the estate of Dolores Ormandy Neumann, the collector’s late estranged wife. The estate is controlled by her daughter Belinda Neumann. Dolores bought the painting from dealer Tony Shafrazi in 1983, the same year it was completed.

Hubert Neumann argued he had a claim to the work because of a prior agreement he struck with Sotheby’s to sell his art in 2015. He also maintained that Sotheby’s had “botched” the marketing of the work by underestimating its value, and said he would happily donate his share of the work to a public institution so it could remain on view in the city where it was created.

The judge, Peter Sherwood, was not buying it. “I am at a loss to understand how he can exercise authority over a piece of work that he and the interest that he represents have no entitlement to,” the judge said, according to transcripts of the hearing obtained by artnet News.

At the hearing, Sotheby’s attorney John Cahill presented documents that he said prove Ormandy Neumann had completely cut her estranged husband out of her will. Cahill read aloud from the papers, which state: “[I]it is my desire and intent that my husband, Hubert Neumann, be disinherited by me to the fullest extent permitted by law, because he has been physically abusive to me for decades and has threatened my life.”

The judge appeared incredulous that Neumann, who is the son of Chicago direct mail mogul and art collector Morton Neumann, would try to use his prior consignment deals with Sotheby’s to gain access to his late wife’s art.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Sotheby’s said: “We are pleased that the court found that Mr. Neumann’s claims are baseless and that next week’s auction should go forward unencumbered.”

For his part, Neumann isn’t giving up yet. His attorney told artnet News that he plans to file an emergency appeal tomorrow, May 9. “We will know more after that,” Andrew Celli told artnet News.

A visitor contemplates Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (1982) at the Brooklyn Museum.

A visitor contemplates Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) at the Brooklyn Museum.

In recent years, Basquiat has emerged as one of the most expensive contemporary artists. At Sotheby’s last May, an untitled work from 1982 sold for $110.5 million to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa.

Family discord was also a factor in that high-profile sale: Two sisters who had inherited equal halves of their late parents’ blue-chip holdings chose to consign works to rival auction houses, significantly limiting each house’s ability to market and brand the collection. One of the daughters of Emily and Jerry Spiegel consigned the record-setting Basquiat to Sotheby’s; the other consigned around 100 works to Christie’s.

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