Keith Haring Foundation Sued For $40 Million By Collectors Over ‘Fakes’

On Friday a group of art collectors and dealers filed a lawsuit against the Keith Haring foundation, claiming that it has cost them at least $40 million, by publicly labelling around 90 paintings by the late artist  ‘counterfeit’ and ‘fake’ and by failing to fully evaluate them.

The lawsuit in US District Court in Manhattan portrayed the Keith Haring Foundation Inc’s approach to authentication as irrational and irresponsible, saying its authentication committee operated for many years “in secret, with little or no explanation and often without ever physically inspecting the works”.

The lawsuit said the foundation, which started shortly before Haring died of AIDS in 1990, disbanded the authentication committee in 2012 to shield itself from litigation over its decisions but continued to obstruct the emergence of new Haring works “through malicious and wrongful tactics” including shutting down a display of Haring art at a Miami show in March 2013.

The lawsuit came about as a result of the foundation’s decision last year to sue the organizers of the ‘Haring Miami’ show, saying it was intended to defraud the public by exhibiting 200 purported works of art by Haring that were mostly fakes. The foundation said the paintings would be worth about $40 million, if they were authentic.  Lawyers for the foundation wrote that, “putting all these cheap Haring fakes into the market will depress prices and irreparably destroy the value of the authentic art and the reputation of the artist and the artwork”. In legal papers, they said that when a foundation director visited the Miami show, they were “shocked at the blatant fraud involved” pointing out that only about eight paintings in the exhibition were authentic.

Friday’s lawsuit was brought by nine collectors who, it said, began buying works in 2007 from two of Haring’s friends.  One was Haring’s former lover; a DJ introduced to Haring in 1982 who says the prolific artist gave him numerous pieces in the 1980s. The other was graffiti artist, Delta Cortez.

The lawsuit said a certificate of authenticity greatly increases the value of a piece of art, making it available for sale through major auction houses as well as through private buyers.  The nine collectors maintained in their lawsuit that the foundation was motivated to restrict the discovery of new Haring art in part to boost the value of paintings already on the market, including some pieces that the foundation itself sold between 2008 and 2011 for $4.6 million.

 Attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit were pictures of the artwork with titles such as ‘Blue Baby’, ‘Baseball Mitt’, ‘Angel Winged TV’ and ‘Green Man Holding Red Baby’ and were in Haring’s distinctive cartoonish style.

Cortez sometime after 1999 contacted the foundation because many buyers wanted paperwork certifying the work as authentic, the lawsuit said.  According to the lawsuit, initially a representative expressed strong interest and asked for pictures and descriptions of the art, but the foundation eventually told him it would authenticate one or two of the pieces if he gave the foundation 10 pieces.  Cortez again contacted the foundation in 2006 but was told that the foundation was not certifying artworks like the ones he wished to submit at that time and further conversations and inquiries “proved fruitless”, the lawsuit said.

In many ways this case reflects the problems suffered by the Warhol Foundation, which dissolved their authentication board in 2012, after 7m dollars in lawsuits surfaced. Attorneys for the Haring Foundation have made no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

 The case is Bilinski et al v. The Keith Haring Foundation Inc et al, U.S. District Court for Southern New York, No. 14-cv-1085. New York

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