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The Devil on the Door

The door, off its hinges in the bodega, 1999.  

If the painting is a faux Basquiat, it would not be the first. As Phoebe Hoban reported in her biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, the FBI in 1994 investigated a matter in which Vrej Baghoomian, the dealer who represented the painter at the time of his death, had sold five fake Basquiats at a Paris art fair. Though he apparently hadn’t made the fakes himself, and was never convicted, “Vrej was a big crook,” says the artist Rick Prol, Basquiat’s last assistant. “He got kicked out of the art world, and then he died.” Another forger, Alfredo Martinez, went to jail in 2002. He had paired his counterfeits with original certificates from the Basquiat estate, which he’d obtained from the owner of the real artworks.

Authenticating Basquiat is tricky. He left unsigned scribbles all over the place: on grocery lists, on kitchen cupboards, even on a bra. “I know people who still have things he did on the walls, and [when they move], they’re like, Can I get it removed?” says Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite, a close friend of Basquiat’s.

The door painting is not signed, and it lacks Basquiat’s signature symbols, like the crown or copyright trademark. It does display devil horns, which he’d painted at least once before. The saying painted on the figure’s nose—YELL AN EYE FOR AN EYE—has the jangle of a Basquiat slogan. (The silver lettering at lower left is a later tag, almost surely not Basquiat’s.) More than one expert pointed out that Basquiat’s E’s, unlike these, are usually three parallel lines, without the vertical stroke; however, paintings from his final year do contain traditional E’s. They also include solitary figures, as in 1988’s Riding With Death, one of Basquiat’s last paintings, which shows a man riding a skeleton like a horse. Those in the know have called his later work “simple,” “lazy,” and “flatter and more cartoonish”—some of the same terms applied to this painting.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s his greatest painting, but it’s not a bad one,” says Kenny Scharf.

The estate said no. “This will certify that the Authentication Committee … has examined the work identified above, and is of the opinion that it is not a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat,” said the letter that Alex received after six months. Its members declined to view the piece beyond the slides. The rejection included a standard disclaimer to protect the estate from lawsuits. Its decision is collective, so its members refuse to comment further. “We’re talking about millions of dollars,” explains Nosei, “so I can’t put my name saying it is or isn’t and influence someone’s decision to buy it.”

Most of Basquiat’s former art dealers refused to comment for this story. A number of them, like Nosei, said they didn’t want to have undue influence, and some also mentioned the provenance of the painting—one referred to it as “seedy.” Of the qualified people who were willing to consider the painting, most were unsure. “I can’t say definitively,” says Franklin Sirmans, a Basquiat expert who’s now the department head for contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He adds that he’s seen pieces that he instantly knew were fakes. “There are some [Basquiat] works that aren’t as good as others and could have been made in certain moments that weren’t the best, but this just doesn’t give me a feeling,” he says. “Of course that’s not to say it couldn’t be. It’s possible.”

A couple of people did stick their necks out. Glenn O’Brien, Basquiat’s friend and the screenwriter of Downtown 81, in which Basquiat appeared, says he recognizes the painter’s style and sense of humor. “I’d say his hand is evident in the main figure,” he says. “If he’s going to cop and there’s a devil on the door, you know, that makes sense. That’s very Jean-Michel.” All the same, he does not dismiss the committee’s ruling: “It’s not like they’re a disinterested party, [but] generally speaking, as far as I know, they’ve been really on the up-and-up.”

Kenny Scharf, the street artist who grew up with Basquiat, sees in the painting a certain energy that is consistent throughout Basquiat’s short career. “It looks like his work to me,” he says. “It resonates this kind of energy that his line did, so that’s how I can tell. He was going through obviously a lot, and it’s just sadness and being alone. I see that. It goes perfectly in sync with everything he did. I wouldn’t say that it’s his greatest painting, but it’s not a bad one.”

We do know that Basquiat was falling apart in 1988. Prol helped the artist prepare for what became his final show, at the Vrej Baghoomian Gallery that spring. “He seemed like a ghost—like something was gone,” remembers Prol, who had been hired by Baghoomian in hopes that he might inspire the barely functioning artist. “He didn’t seem interested in anything—sex, or seeing anybody, or doing the work. He seemed very isolated and alone.” That might explain its apparent lack of life force. Then again, so would forgery.