In the realm of contemporary art, Jean-Michel Basquiat stands as a luminary figure. Known for his unique blend of street art, graffiti, and neo-expressionism, Basquiat’s works have remained highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts alike worldwide . As the demand for Basquiat’s work and value of his pieces continues to rise, the authentication process becomes increasingly crucial and the need for accurate authentication has become more critical than ever.
The authentication of Basquiat painting is a multifaceted challenge, compounded by the absence of a catalogue raisonné and the dissolution of the authenticating foundation. As experts navigate this labyrinth, they must rely on a combination of scientific methods, histor- ical records, and personal connections to unravel the mysteries sur- rounding each artwork. In the absence of exhibitions or museum showings, the journey to authenticate a Basquiat painting becomes a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of the art world.
In this article, we delve into the multifaceted and meticulous process of verifying Jean-Michel Basquiat’s enormous body of work not only unraveling the complexities surrounding his artistic output but also hoping to shed light on the artist’s evolution and the nuanced narratives woven into each piece. Through exhaustive archival research, connoisseurship, and cutting-edge technology, art historians and ex- perts have come together to authenticate and contextualize Basquiat’s creations, providing a deeper understanding of his genius. The verification process not only safeguards the integrity of his legacy but also opens avenues for scholars, collectors and art enthusiasts to delve into the rich tapestry of Basquiat’s artistic journey, leaving an indelible mark on the discourse surrounding contemporary art. The authentication efforts serve as a testament to the enduring significance of Basquiat’s oeuvre and its lasting impact on the art world.
There is no catalogue raisonne for the work of Jean Michel Basquiat : a comprehensive compilation of an artist’s body of work. Obviously this poses a significant hurdle in authenticating Basquiat’s paintings. Without a centralized reference, art experts and collectors face difficulties in establishing a consistent and widely accepted standard for verifying the authenticity of individual pieces. Some potential reasons for the absence of a Basquiat catalogue raisonné include:
Complexity and Volume of Works
Basquiat was a prolific artist, creating a large number of works during his relatively short career. Compiling and authenticating such a vast body of work can be a daunting task, especially given the challenges of dealing with incomplete records and off the cuff sales by the artist himself.
In some cases, art historians and scholars may differ in their opinions on the attribution and authenticity of specific artworks. These debates can complicate the process of creating a catalogue raisonné.
Creating a comprehensive catalogue raisonné requires extensive research, including locating and verifying artworks, documenting provenance, and addressing authentication challenges. This process is on- going and may take many years to complete.
Foundations and Legal Challenges
Complicating matters further, The Basquiat Foundation, believed by some a beacon for verifying the authenticity of his works, faced lawsuits regarding the legitimacy of certain pieces, which ultimately led to its dissolution. According to a notice posted on the website for the Basquiat estate on Jan. 7, the committee, which was formed in 1993, “will dissolve in September 2012 and no longer consider applications thereafter.”
The Basquiat Foundation was not alone in closing its authentication shop. They joined the ranks of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, the Noguchi Museum and The Keith Harring Foundation, just to name a few who have ceased authenticating artworks due to an increasingly litigious climate.
The reluctance of experts and scholars to speak publicly about authenticity in fear of lawsuits has become a double edge sword as well, which could keep forgeries and misattributed works in circulation while permitting newly discovered works to go unrecognized and undervalued.
In January 2012 the Courtauld Institute of Art in London cited “the possibility of legal action” when it canceled a forum discussing a controversial set of some 600 drawings attributed to Francis Bacon.
And Alexander Rower, Alexander Calder’s grandson and the chairman of the Calder Foundation opted out of a proper catalogue raisonné in favor of an online guide to Calder’s development and history in order to avoid lawsuits. “You determine if your work is fake or not with the data we present,” he said. New York Times, June 19th, 2012.
With no centralized authority to turn to , the art community is left grappling with the challenge of establishing the legitimacy of Basquiat paintings and adding layers of complexity to the already intricate task.
Radiocarbon Testing Precision: The Nuclear Option
Radiocarbon dating, a groundbreaking scientific technique developed in the 1950s, has been instrumental in determining the age of organic materials. In the realm of art conservation and historical authentication, radiocarbon testing has proven invaluable, particularly for pieces created after the 1950s. In the realm of scientific authentication, radio- carbon testing has emerged as a powerful tool for dating artworks.
Why specifically efficient for modern pieces
The efficacy of radiocarbon testing for art pieces created after 1950 is influenced by the detonation of atomic bombs. This is because nuclear weapons testing in the mid-20th century significantly altered the atmospheric concentration of carbon-14 (C-14), a radioactive isotope used in radiocarbon dating.
Before the advent of nuclear weapons testing, the atmospheric C-14 concentration was relatively constant. However, nuclear bomb detonations released a substantial amount of C-14 into the atmosphere, leading to a surge in atmospheric C-14 levels. This increase is commonly referred to as the “bomb pulse.”
The bomb pulse had a direct impact on organic materials, such as plants and animals, that absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Consequently, artworks created after 1950 may contain C- 14 levels that are higher than those found in earlier works due to the incorporation of bomb-produced C-14.
Radiocarbon dating relies on the principle of measuring the decay of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 (C-14). Living organisms absorb C-14 from the atmosphere during their lifetimes. Upon death, the in- take ceases, and the C-14 within the organic material begins to decay. By measuring the remaining C-14 in a sample, scientists can estimate the time elapsed since the organism’s death.
For art pieces created post-1950s, a different approach known as Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) is often employed. The increased precision of AMS allows for the dating of smaller samples, making it suitable for delicate artworks.
Advantages of Radiocarbon Testing in Modern Art Dating
In radiocarbon dating, scientists account for the bomb pulse by calibrating results using calibration curves. These curves take into consideration the known atmospheric C-14 levels resulting from nuclear testing. By comparing the measured C-14 levels in a sample to the calibration curve, researchers can estimate the age of the organic material. This calibration process is crucial for obtaining accurate and reliable radiocarbon dates for art pieces created after the mid-20th century. It allows scientists to adjust for the artificial increase in C-14 levels caused by nuclear weapons testing, providing a more precise determination of the actual age of the organic components in the artwork.Radiocarbon testing is particularly useful for authenticating modern artworks, especially those lacking extensive historical records. It helps art experts verify whether a piece indeed originates from the claimed time period, offering insights into an artist’s career trajectory.
Detection of Forgeries
Forgers often employ various techniques to create convincing replicas of artworks. Radiocarbon dating can detect anomalies in the age of materials, aiding in the identification of forgeries by revealing in- consistencies with the claimed creation date.
Conclusion on the Nuclear Option
Radiocarbon testing has revolutionized the field of art conservation, offering a precise method for dating art pieces. While challenges persist, ongoing advancements in technology and methodology continue to enhance the precision of radiocarbon dating, ensuring its continued relevance in the authentication and preservation of modern artworks. As researchers refine techniques and address limitations, radiocarbon testing stands as a crucial tool in unraveling the mysteries of art history and safeguarding cultural heritage.
In summary, the efficacy of radiocarbon testing for art pieces after 1950 is indeed influenced by the bomb pulse resulting from nuclear weapons testing.
By analyzing the carbon isotopes present in organic materials, experts can pinpoint the creation date of a painting with remarkable accuracy and unparalleled precision. This method is most effective for dating works post-1950, therefore applicable to all of Basquiat’s pieces.
Restoration Reports and Provenance
Detailed restoration reports can also play a crucial role in the authentication journey. These reports not only provide insights into the history of a painting but can also reveal alterations or inconsistencies. Additionally, a reliable and provable provenance becomes paramount, tracing the ownership history of the artwork and establishing its legitimacy.
Basquiat in Private Homes
Images of Basquiat paintings in private homes, especially those owned by well-documented collectors, can serve as valuable references. These images provide a glimpse into the condition of the artwork over time, aiding in the authentication process.
Sales Receipts and the Living Connection
Possessing a sales receipt from a reputable gallery or auction house is a key element in establishing the authenticity of a Basquiat painting. The paper trail created during the sale serves as a tangible record of the artwork’s transaction. Furthermore, the involvement of the person who sold the piece, particularly if they are still alive, adds a living connection to the authentication process. While his art spoke volumes, the galleries and representatives behind Basquiat’s rise played a pivotal role in shaping his legacy. Their firsthand knowledge and recollection of the sale can contribute significantly to the verification of the artwork’s authenticity since the galleries and representatives that intersected with Basquiat’s career were instrumental in shaping his artistic trajectory. The collaborative efforts of Patti Astor, Larry Gagosian, Annina Nosei, and Mary Boone, coupled with Basquiat’s own ingenuity, have ensured that his legacy remains a cornerstone of contemporary art history. The 1982 Fun Gallery show, in particular,
remains an iconic moment that marked the emergence of Basquiat as a force to be reckoned with in the art world.
Annina Nosei Gallery: The Early Catalyst
The Annina Nosei Gallery served as the launching pad for Basquiat’s formal artistic career in the early 1980s. This gallery provided him with a platform to showcase his raw and expressive works, marking the in- ception of his journey from street artist to recognized contemporary painter. Nosei’s guidance helped Basquiat refine his craft and gain the attention of other influential figures in the art world.
Fun Gallery and Patti Astor: A Pioneering Spirit
Patti Astor, the co-founder of the Fun Gallery, played a pioneering role in championing Basquiat’s art. In 1982, Astor curated a solo exhibition for Basquiat at the Fun Gallery, a space that celebrated the fusion of street culture and contemporary art. This show was a turning point in Basquiat’s career, providing him with visibility and recognition in the burgeoning downtown art scene.
Bruno Bischofberger: International Recognition
Swiss gallerist Bruno Bischofberger played a crucial role in catapulting Basquiat onto the international stage. Recognizing the uniqueness of Basquiat’s art, Bischofberger introduced him to European audiences through exhibitions and collaborations. This global exposure helped Basquiat’s work transcend geographical boundaries and gain acclaim on an international scale.
Larry Gagosian: The Powerhouse Connector
Larry Gagosian, a formidable force in the art world, continued to propel Basquiat into the limelight. Gagosian’s influence helped Basquiat transcend the boundaries of the New York art scene and gain international acclaim. The gallery owner’s commitment to promoting Basquiat’s work extended beyond exhibitions, contributing to the artist’s lasting legacy and widespread recognition.
Mary Boone: Shaping the Narrative
Mary Boone, a respected art dealer, also played a crucial role in shaping Basquiat’s narrative. Her galleries hosted solo exhibitions that showcased the depth and complexity of Basquiat’s artistic vision. Boone’s involvement in presenting Basquiat as a serious artist helped elevate the perception of street art and graffiti in the broader contemporary art landscape.
While Basquiat’s family undoubtedly holds a special place in his legacy, there is a compelling argument that those who shared an intimate connection with him during the zenith of his artistic journey may possess a unique ability to recognize his work. Basquiat’s friends and close associates, who spent an enormous amount of time with him, are perhaps the most adept at discerning the nuances of his art, even surpassing the familiarity of his own family.
Shared Experiences and Artistic Evolution
Friends and confidants who walked alongside Basquiat during the trajectory of his career had the privilege of witnessing his artistic evolution firsthand. They experienced the highs and lows, the inspirations and struggles, contributing to an unparalleled understanding of his creative process. This intimate knowledge can be instrumental in recognizing the subtle shifts and distinctive elements present in Basquiat’s works.
The Language of Shared Influences
Close companions often share influences, references, and experiences that shape their artistic vocabulary. Basquiat’s friends, who engaged in dialogues and collaborations with him, absorbed the same cultural and artistic references. This shared language can serve as a profound connection, enabling them to discern the nuances of Basquiat’s work more intimately than those who did not partake in these shared influences.
Artistic creation is not only about the final product but also the process. Those who spent an enormous amount of time with Basquiat were privy to the unspoken aspects of his artistic expression — the gestures, the energy, and the emotions that permeated his studio. This unspoken communication becomes a silent guide for recognizing the authenticity of his work, a language that may be challenging for those not deeply entrenched in his day-to-day artistic endeavors.
The Spirit of Collaboration
Basquiat was known for collaborations with artists like Andy Warhol, A-One, Reed Stowe and Toxic. Those who engaged in these collaborative efforts gained insights into Basquiat’s creative process, as well as those who spent large amounts of time with him in order to write abut his work , like Anthony Haden-Guest , contributing to a nuanced understanding of his artistic fingerprints. The synergy born from these collaborations impart a distinct advantage in recognizing the authenticity of his solo works.
The unique insight offered by Basquiat’s closest friends and associates cannot be overstated. Their shared experiences, influences, unspoken communication, and collaborative endeavors create a tapestry of understanding that extends beyond the familial realm. As custodians of Basquiat’s artistic legacy, these individuals may hold the key to unlocking the true essence of his work, providing an intimate and unparalleled perspective that enriches our appreciation of this magnificent human being.
The Artists Hand
“Basquiat’s hand was so distinctive; people who really know the work can tell instantly”. Los Angeles art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who sat on the Basquiat authentication committee for several years before it disbanded and who had a close relationship with Basquiat said in The Art Newspaper article of June 2023.
Basquiat’s works are characterized by recurring motifs and symbols that are integral to his artistic language. Crowns, skeletal structures, fragmented figures, and cryptic text are all part of his distinctive iconography. Authentic pieces will showcase these elements in a way that aligns with Basquiat’s consistent use throughout his career. Examining the presence and execution of these symbols can be a key factor in authentication.
Bold Brushstrokes and Raw Energy
Basquiat’s technique is marked by bold, energetic brushstrokes that convey a raw and immediate quality. His works often exude a sense of urgency, with layers of paint, text, and imagery overlapping to create a visually complex narrative. Authentic pieces will reflect this dynamic and expressive style, showcasing Basquiat’s commitment to spontaneity and emotion in his art.
Basquiat’s color palette is another crucial element to consider when authenticating his works. While he employed a range of colors, there are certain hues that frequently appear in his pieces. Earth tones, vibrant reds, yellows, pinks and blues are commonly associated with Basquiat’s work. Examining the color choices and their application can provide valuable insights into the authenticity of a piece.
Surface Texture and Medium
Basquiat was known to experiment with various materials and surfaces. Authenticating a piece involves scrutinizing the texture of the canvas, the application of paint, and the overall materiality. Basquiat’s use of found objects, such as doors and salvaged materials (including damaged canvases) adds an extra layer of complexity.
The authentication of Basquiat’s paintings navigates a labyrinth of challenges, from the absence of a catalogue raisonné and legal battles to the reliance on precise scientific methods and the importance of provenance, sales documentation and a keen eye for detail and understanding of the artist’s unique visual language (recurring imagery, bold brushstrokes, color palette, surface texture).
As the market for Basquiat’s art continues to flourish, the quest for authenticity remains a dynamic and evolving endeavor where a rigorous and multilevel authentication process becomes increasingly essential to preserve the integrity of his legacy and the value of his extraordinary creations, shaping the narrative around one of the most influential artists of the 20th century.
Leonor Anthony is a Cuban Born multidisciplinary artist and activist based in Miami. Leonor is an an accredited scholar and theologian, multidisciplinary artist, photographer, poet, filmmaker and published author. She uses art as a vehicle of activism. She explores limitless styles and materials characterized by violently expressive color and jarring compositions. Through these elements, Leonor is able to bring awareness to civil rights, race relations, women’s rights, prison reform and the environment. Leonor Anthony participated by invitation in the 57th Venice Biennale. Her works were exhibited as part of the European Cultural Center’s exhibit Personal Structures, Open Borders. Two of her monumental works are part of the Florida International University’s permanent collection exhibited at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and The FIU College of Law.
She is the co-author of the critically acclaimed book “Sounds of Freedom” based on her concept of union of Jazz Black and white images of the 1960’s , the Civil Rights Movement and her work inspired but both. The book is part of the US Library of Congress as well as President Barack Obama’s personal collection.
Her work is part of the permanent collection of the University of California Davis Medical Campus, her piece Reminiscing in Tempo is located in the president of the University’s office. The work was the focus of an inter campus series of talks on the existing inequities on the US Health Care System during the 2020 Pandemic.
Her work is in the permanent collection of the Jefferson City Missouri Museum of Modern Art and Museo Contemporaneo de Valencia, Venezuela. A monumental installation currently in production will also part of the permanent collection of the Junmao Museum of Contemporary Art in Cancun, Mexico.