On a Saturday morning in the early summer of 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat stepped through the doorway of a bodega on South 4th Street in Williamsburg. It was a tough neighborhood back then, before the condos and restaurants arrived, and the store was a drug front. Basquiat had been hitting it up every couple of days, likely because his Manhattan source had dried up. Word on the street was that if you knew where to go, the drugs were better in Brooklyn, and rock stars and other wealthier users were starting to make the quick trip over the bridge.
Nobody there knew who Basquiat was, but, at 27, he was as famous as he’d ever be during his lifetime. His paintings had reached a then-astronomical $50,000 apiece. The Whitney and MoMA had showed him. Celebrities like Paul Simon had bought his work. In person, though, he looked ragged. He was skinny and had open sores and swollen pimples on his face. He had about $300 in his hand, and he spoke softly when he asked for his usual: “Two bundles,” or twenty bags. The first few times, he’d sniffed the goods. When he’d introduced himself as “Michel,” the dealer told him he’d get his ass kicked with a girl’s name and said he’d call him “Mike.”
As he became a regular, he’d hang around and smoke a joint with the workers in the little backyard—though the dealer, then just 18, remembers not wanting to “share saliva” because he looked so far gone. On this day, “Mike” eyed some cans of paint lying around the storefront and asked if he might do something on the steel front door. “Do whatever you want,” the dealer said. “Just make sure you lock the door when you leave.” Basquiat rather quickly painted a lone figure with devil’s horns on the door and then left. “Mike” would return a few more times that summer, then disappear for a couple of months, and then come back one last time near the end of the summer, buying significantly less than usual.
On August 12, 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat was found dead in his loft on Great Jones Street in Manhattan, overdosed on heroin. He’d just returned from Maui, where he’d gone cold turkey, and most of his friends believed that he (like many relapsing addicts) had lost his tolerance, turning his customary dose lethal.
The door remained on the Brooklyn storefront, and passersby now and then offered the owner money for it—once $4,000, another time $7,000—to his confusion. Eventually, around 1999, someone showed him a photograph of Basquiat in an art book. “I seen his picture, I said, Yeah, I used to sell heroin to this guy,” he remembers. “I said, This is fuckin’ Mike.” He removed the door and put it in storage.
That’s the story, anyway. It comes from the former dealer, who will go only by his first name, Alex, fearing implications in the artist’s death.
Alex is now in his forties with kids, living an ordinary life. I heard about him in March 2009, when I met a woman named Anastasia at an art opening. Alex was an old friend of her father’s, and she had seen the door in storage. She’d talked to the owner of 2B, the minuscule gallery–hair salon where we met, and they led me to Alex. It took well over a year’s negotiation before he agreed to tell his story for publication.
Later in 2009, they had the door photographed and submitted it to the authentication committee for Basquiat’s estate, which is run by the artist’s septuagenarian Haitian-born father, Gerard. He is an unlikely art-world power, an accountant who never quite embraced his son’s career in life but now manages it in death.
Two slides of the artwork, along with its backstory, went off to the committee by mail. An authentication like this is a one-step process: The submission is considered, and a verdict is handed down. An enormous sum was riding on the ruling. A Basquiat painting from 1981 had recently sold for $14.6 million. Julian Schnabel’s 1996 Basquiat biopic starring Jeffrey Wright, the Reebok tribute collection of sneakers, a reference in a Jay-Z lyric: They all continue to boost his mystique and his prices. Michael Chisolm, a specialist in African, African-American, and Haitian art—but, he hastens to add, not a Basquiat expert—explains the estate’s power thus: “It’s a huge responsibility, because there’s no recourse after that. If they say no, then it’s a no.”
The committee’s members and advisers vary depending on who is available when a piece is being authenticated, but they have included the curators and gallerists Diego Cortez, Jeffrey Deitch, John Cheim, Richard Marshall, Fred Hoffman, and Annina Nosei (the artist’s first art dealer), along with Gerard Basquiat.