MANHATTAN (CN) - Suing to block Sotheby’s sale of a masterpiece by the acclaimed graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, an 86-year-old collector accused the storied auction house Thursday of “shamelessly” capitalizing on a family in turmoil.
Expected to fetch $30 million if the May 16 sale at Sotheby’s goes through, the masterpiece in question is Basquiat’s “Flesh and Spirit.” With selective use of color, the 12-foot-by-12-foot piece depicts floating body parts, as well as labels like “medulla,” “potato” and “spirit,” stretching across four sections and multiple canvases.
Dolores Neumann acquired “Flesh and Sprit” in 1983, according to the complaint by her husband, Hubert, who is represented by the firm Emery Celli.
Hubert calls the piece an integral addition to the collection his family established in the mid-20th century, “widely regarded as one of the world’s finest private collections of modern and contemporary art.”
To say nothing of the works by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein he has waiting in the wings, Neumann says that Sotheby’s is poised to bungle the May 16 sale at great cost to the three other Basquiats in his collection.
The suit hinges on an agreement Neumann says he struck with Sotheby’s in March 2015 that allegedly grants him marketing approval rights to any work sold from the family collection.
Neumann says he learned last month that his middle child, Belinda, consigned “Flesh and Spirit” to Sotheby’s behind his back, having wrested control of his wife’s estate when Dolores was on her deathbed in September 2016.
Sotheby’s shot back at the lawsuit in a statement Friday.
“This eleventh hour claim is entirely without merit and we are confident that the ‘agreement’ Mr. Neumann relies on does not exist and the court will find in our favor and the auction will proceed as scheduled,” the company said.
A report by The New York Post on Thursday’s lawsuit quotes the late Dolores Neumann as saying she wrote Hubert out of her will because “he has been physically abusive.”
The Post also quoted Hubert as denying the charge. “I’m not accepting the fact that I did anything like that to her,” he said, according to the article.
Neumann’s attorney declined to comment specifically on these allegations, but the complaint emphasizes that Dolores could not have disinherited her husband “as a matter of law."
Calling the will “the product of undue influence,” the complaint also notes that it is currently the subject of proceedings in surrogate’s court.
Apart from how “Flesh and Spirit” was consigned to Sotheby’s, Neumann accuses the auction house of doing a “miserable job in marketing this masterpiece.”
Neumann says the seminal work could fetch tens of millions of dollars more than the $30 million asking price, which he says Sotheby’s should not have publicized in the first place.
Rather than focus on the piece’s stunning complexity and its position in Basquiat’s oeuvre, moreover, the complaint says Sotheby’s has instead “chosen to rely on a clichéd narrative portraying Dolores as a ‘visionary’ uptown collector who ‘discovered’ Basquiat as a struggling downtown artist.”
The complaint offers little detail on the “personal relationship” it says Dolores and Basquiat shared. Sotheby's notes that she bought the piece for $15,000 the year it was completed.
Neumann also calls out Sotheby’s for its “lame effort to court the Asian market,” specifically a mention of “a trip that Dolores’s famous uncle once made to China with his orchestra.”
As for his daughter, Belinda, Neumann says Sotheby’s inclusion of her gallery, Neumann Wolfson Art, in marketing the piece reeks of desperation.
“Neumann Wolfson Art would not handle a work of this significance and its involvement wrongly suggests that the work is not saleable and needs to be hawked by members of the collector’s family,” the complaint states.
A representative for Belinda’s gallery would not confirm the allegation Friday, and Belinda did not return a phone call for comment.
Neumann’s attorney Andrew Celli called Sotheby’s actions “shameful” and said it “prioritized short-term profit and prestige over its contractual obligations and doing the right thing.”
Hubert offered in a statement Friday to sacrifice his “entire economic interest in the painting to ensure that it becomes available for study and public exhibition,” if it is donated to the Morton Neumann Family Foundation.
The Brooklyn-born Basquiat garnered early fame in the 1970s as a graffiti artist on the Lower East Side. His social-commentary, neo-expressionist paintings have been bought by Madonna, David Bowie and Leonardo DiCaprio. Five years after finishing “Flesh and Spirit,” 27-year-old Basquiat died in 1988 of a heroin overdose.
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