On April 13, 2023, Mr. Christopher Parker of Smithsonian Magazine published a report titled California Man Admits to Helping Create Fake Basquiat Paintings.
I begin by noting that I am not a scholar of the artistic stylings of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died at age 27 in 1988. These days, he is known primarily for how much his artwork sells for. See the following passage from the Smithsonian report:
Basquiat, the celebrated New York-based Neo-Expressionist, died in 1988 at age 27. He is one of the most sought-after American artists: In 2017, one of his works fetched a whopping $110.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive pieces of American art ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times’ Matt Stevens and Brett Sokol, if the works in Orlando had been authentic, they would have been worth tens of millions of dollars.
Now I will confess that I do not “understand” the artwork of Mr. Basquiat, and none of the pieces that I have seen are the sorts of things I would want hanging in my home (my esteemed colleague Victor V. Gurbo suggests that photographers should point to shoot photos worthy of hanging in a living room or dining room). I came across an interesting quote from former short-lived White House spokesman Anthony Scaramucci about why wealthy people spend obscene amounts of money on Basquiat paintings. He employed colorful language to explain that many wealthy people are obsessed with fame and being unique. This segued into the Basquiat quip:
You’ve got to think about it like a pyramid … The widest part is eating at McDonald’s. The narrowest part is ‘I paid two hundred million for the Basquiat.’ Because that’s one of a kind. I’m taking a piece of the immortality the artist created, and I’m owning it. Freud said we’re ultimately hysterical because of our own demise. This is why we do things. I have to prove that I’m really living.
The first part sounds right. I will pass on commenting on the references to Freudian psychology. The point of buying Basquiat painting is the headline about how much the buyer paid for it. As for the artistic merit, I would generally apply King Charles’ assessments of the excesses of modern architecture. The works are interesting, with the operative word being italicized for emphasis. I hold the works of Andy Warhol, Basquiat’s initial art patron, in similar regard (his character in less regard). After Basquiat produced a finished painting and showed it to Warhol in the space of a couple of hours, Warhol reportedly complained: “Oh I’m so jealous. He’s faster than me.”
Now you may think that I have forgotten the Basquiat forgery story that I led the article with – but fear not, we now return to it. In June 2022, the FBI removed 25 paintings from the Orlando Museum of Art that were falsely attributed to Basquiat. The forged paintings had been purportedly “discovered” in a “storage locker” by two individuals before they were displayed at the museum. After the Orlando Museum of Art put the paintings on display, there was apparently some debate as to their authenticity. I quote from the second report:
Upon their debut, the works immediately generated buzz—along with some doubts about their authenticity. At the time, few experts were willing to make definitive judgments publicly. When the Times’ Sokol contacted Sotheby’s and ‘several art world professionals’ for his story in February 2022, none were willing to comment.
How good must these forgeries have been to generate this much debate? Mr. Pierce O’Donnell, an attorney who had purchased interest in six of the paintings, explained why he believed that the paintings were authentic:
O’Donnell reasoned that forgers would be more likely to make one large, impressive fake; they “wouldn’t just go out and get cardboard from a supermarket or liquor store and create 25 paintings.”
Cardboard? Alas, Mr. O’Donnell’s reasoning turned out to be flawed:
This strategy, however, is allegedly what Barzman settled on. Per the plea agreement, “J.F. spent a maximum of 30 minutes on each image and as little as five minutes on others” before giving them to Barzman to sell on eBay. The pair would leave the paintings outside in an attempt to make them look aged.
This is all coming full circle. I had remembered reading that Warhol was said to have complained that Basquiat could create paintings even faster than him. The two forgers managed to fool a museum, many experts, and high-spending art buyers with forgeries that were the product of 25 pieces of cardboard and 5-30 minutes of “work” on each painting. (I spent more time in Microsoft Paint creating Mr. Envelope and a Descartes diagram.) The hoax clearly fooled Mr. Aaron De Groft, the former CEO and director of the Orlando Museum of Art, who had stated:
The cardboard is legit. I believe deeply these are authentic Basquiats.
“The cardboard is legit.” This is the pinnacle of forensic art analysis.
While it is hard to see any hole in the plan to spend a few minutes scribbling on cardboard and claiming that your scribblings are authentic Basquiat paintings (it is actually hard since the hoax managed to fool an art museum and many art appraisers), Smithsonian noted what was perhaps a warning sign:
One small clue was particularly striking: An artwork painted on a piece of cardboard had text reading, “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here.” This design, however, wasn’t used [by FedEx] until six years after Basquiat’s death.
I am not a fan of performance art. However, there are exceptions to every rule. What if we view what Mr. Barzman and his colleague did in forging 25 Basquiat paintings as a performance art experiment? If you look at it in that way, their actions almost seem praiseworthy. Maybe they should be able to trade their criminal convictions for a medal. Was there really a victim here? Let no one say I am averse to looking at possible criminality in creative ways.
But I digress.
My main take-away from the story is that maybe the people spending tens (or hundreds) of millions of dollars on Basquiat paintings should take the fact that all it takes to make a convincing hoax is a piece of cardboard and 5-30 minutes of “painting” as a sign that their vanity is out of control. There have been many debates about the authenticity of paintings purportedly created by great masters, but I am confident that it requires more than 5-30 minutes of painting to produce something convincing in that area. The same applies to the “Platonic” dialogues of disputed authenticity. I suggest that the insecure super wealthy among us should channel their excessive money in different ways. They could follow the example of a certain gentleman in the United Arab Emirates who, around the same time of the Basquiat hoax guilty plea, purchased a license plate reading “P7” for the low price of $15 million. He can flaunt his wealth while driving around in a fancy car but does not have to hang his wealth signaling in his living room. (In the alternative, I humbly suggest that they consider reading my article on productivity and productive leisure.)