Christie’s Files $32 Million Lawsuit Against Mega-Collector Jose Mugrabi for Unpaid Painting

The house says it's far from the first time.

Jose Mugrabi.
Photo: Patrick McMullan.

Christie’s has filed a complaint against Jose Mugrabi, and Mugrabi family firm, the Jombihis Corporation, for $32.1 million (plus interest and fees), for a canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat that the auction house claims it has not been paid for. At a postwar and contemporary art sale at Christie’s New York on May 2015, Mugrabi placed the winning bid on the painting, The Field Next to the Other Road (1981).

Jose Mugrabi, along with his sons David and Alberto, are one of the more prominent collecting families and are front-row fixtures at sales at major auction houses.

The 13-foot painting brought the sixth-highest price of the blockbuster $658.5 million auction, and the second-highest price for a Basquiat at auction to that date. The canvas was reportedly consigned by New York dealer Tony Shafrazi.

The house says it’s not the first time the family has gotten itself into hot water for nonpayment.

“We, thus, yet again face the situation where your current debt position at Christie’s has raised concerns that will likely restrict Christie’s from being able to enter into transactions with you,” reads a letter included in the filing, signed by Jen Zatorski, Christie’s president of art departments.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, <i>The Field Next to the Other Road</i> (1981).<br>Photo: courtesy of Christie's.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Field Next to the Other Road (1981).
Photo: courtesy of Christie’s.

Payment was to take place in three installments: $5 million by November 9, 2015, $13,562,500 by January 4, 2016, and the remaining $18,562,500 by February 15, 2016. The buyers were to pay 16 percent interest for any late amounts. The complaint says that the payments stopped after the initial $5 million.

According to the complaint, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s global head of postwar and contemporary art, went to Mugrabi’s office, with Zatorski in January in an effort to get him to pay up, and sent the written demand in February. Zatorski warned Mugrabi he wouldn’t be able to bid at the house’s upcoming London sale if he failed to pay.

Jose, 75, is the son of Syrian Jews who ran a grocery store in Jerusalem. After starting a successful textile business in Colombia, he got interested in art collecting while visiting Art Basel in 1987, where he bought a work by Andy Warhol.

“The Mugrabis own what is believed to be one of the most valuable private collections of contemporary art in the world,” writes Don Thompson in his 2014 book The Supermodel and the Brillo Box. “It includes 3,000 works; 100 or more by each of Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Condo, and Tom Wesselmann. Before the 2008 economic downturn, the Mugrabis estimated the value of the collection as ‘approaching a billion dollars.’”

Alberto Mugrabi did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the complaint.

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