And here we get to the fundamental problem: If it’s a legitimate Basquiat, it’s worth a fortune to his drug dealer, a man who, some argue, was partially responsible for the artist’s death. As Nosei puts it, “They killed him. To sell drugs and kill people is a crime, and they should not be rewarded.” On the market, such an unsavory backstory, notes Chisolm, could easily be a strong selling point.
Gerard Basquiat almost certainly does not want millions of dollars going to a man who sold his son dope. The artist’s drug habit was one big source of friction between father and son, who were rumored not to be speaking at the end of Jean-Michel’s life. Gerard has claimed that he didn’t know how bad his son’s drug habit was. Never mind that, as Glenn O’Brien recalls, Jean-Michel “got these splotches on his face, so people were going around saying he had AIDS.” (O’Brien adds that Basquiat was self-conscious about his bad skin, meeting with doctors about it and once showing up at the nightclub Nell’s wearing an aluminum-foil mask that he kept on all night while “dancing like a madman.”) Gerard allegedly kept his son’s friends away from his funeral, blaming them for his overdose.
Scharf suggests that, since Basquiat’s death, Gerard has tried to purify his image. “Look, I know the real everything,” says Scharf about Basquiat’s demimonde life. “And there seems to be a whitewashing of how he really lived. It’s a big subject: Who controls a person’s mythology and what is their agenda? Jean-Michel told me that a big part of his unhappiness had to do with his father. So knowing Gerard controls everything and profits, I can’t help thinking about the irony. He gets to approve everything now, but he wasn’t even there when all this was happening. He doesn’t know what went on.
“Gerard has mostly done a good job of elevating his son’s status in the world of art,” continues Scharf. “It’s pretty amazing—the prices—but Gerard should be more concerned about the art itself and less concerned about the life led, because you can’t really change history.” Gerard Basquiat refused to comment for this story.
It seems plausible that the door has been ruled inauthentic—no matter who painted it—because many who knew the artist believe that a painting from a drug den is not worthy of his canon. Simply “ugly” is what Nosei calls it. “The aesthetically meaningful pieces of Jean-Michel are projecting an idea, something special, and it’s hard to look at this painting and understand the point,” she says. “It’s possible he did it at a point of misery, despair, and depression. But why would we want anything to do with that?”
Here’s why: If it’s a genuine Basquiat, it’s part of his art and life, however diminished both were. “It’s not a happy thought, of someone in despair and drugs at the end of their life, but that doesn’t devalue the art,” says Scharf. “In fact, maybe it increases it.”