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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Keith Haring Foundation Dodges $40M Lawsuit

MANHATTAN (CN) - The Keith Haring Foundation's refusal to authenticate about 80 works cannot be spun into an antitrust conspiracy to control the market on paintings belonging to the iconic pop artist, a federal judge ruled.

Before dying in 1990 at the age of 31, Haring blazed a trail through the art world with paintings inspired by graffiti, social activism and a pop aesthetic. His 1986 "Crack is Wack" mural greeted commuters on the Harlem River Drive as one of New York City's most visible public art landmarks.

The mural is also emblematic of his social activism on issues such as drug addiction and AIDS.

Nine collectors led by Elizabeth Bilinski sued his foundation last year for describing their purported Haring works as "fakes," allegedly wrecking the collective $40 million value of the pieces.

The lawsuit alleged that the foundation, dealers and auction houses ignored evidence of the works' authenticity in order to control the market on Haring paintings.

But U.S. District Judge Denise Cote refused to allow such "broad allegations" to make it past the pleading stage.

The collectors' theory of the case would posit that "any refusal by an auction house, dealer, or gallery to sell a Haring without authentication by the foundation could be a conspiratorial act," she wrote in a 35-page opinion.

"Furthermore, the complaint's allegations regarding the refusals of auction houses and others to accept plaintiffs' works can be explained by unilateral decisions motivated by entirely lawful goals," the opinion states. "The decision by any individual entity not to sell artwork that may not be authentic is an act consistent with lawful, independent action."

The allegations against the Haring Foundation mirrored a former lawsuit against the Andy Warhol Foundation.

In that case, filmmaker Joe Simon-Whelan led a class action claiming the Warhol Foundation's now-defunct authentication board conspired to artificially inflate prices of the pop artist's works.

In 2009, a federal judge's decision to allow the lawsuit against the Warhol Foundation to move into the discovery phase rippled across the art world by exposing organizations that authenticated artwork to civil liability.

Although Simon-Whelan ultimately retracted his conspiracy claims, the Warhol authentication board was dissolved three years later.

The same year, the Haring Foundation also got out of the authentication business, according to the opinion.

"No catalogue raisonné exists for Haring's works, and the [collectors] here do not premise their claim on an agreement between the foundation and the committee, but on an agreement between the foundation and art dealers, auction houses, and galleries," the opinion notes. "As significantly, the defendants here ceased their authentication activities in 2012 and could not be plausibly alleged to control authentication of Haring's work."

Cote dismissed all claims on Friday.

An attorney for the collectors declined to comment on the record by press time, and the foundation's lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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