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Heirs of Contemporary Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat Sue Christie's

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on March 14, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Graffiti artist turned Contemporary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has become a pop culture phenomenon since his death from a heroin overdose in 1988, at the age of 27. In his short life, he caused a stir in the art scene, dated Madonna before she was the Queen of Pop, and was best buddies with Andy Warhol.

The Adler Collection

On March 3, 2014 was supposed to host an online auction of Basquiat's works from Alexis Adler's collection. Adler, a former lover and roommate of Jean-Michel Basquiat acquired the work when he moved out and left the items behind. Having sensed the time was right, she decided to put the collection up for auction, through Christie's and stated: "I am releasing it to the world. ... It is no longer appropriate for me to be holding on to this," reports WCBS.

The Federal Complaint

One day after the online auction started, the sisters and Administrators of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Estate sued Christie's alleging that many of the works in the auction were not authentic, and that Christie's never submitted the items for review. The force of the legal challenge relied on Christie's inclusion of a copyright notice at the end of the auction catalog that read: "All artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat: © 2014 the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, New York."

The sisters allege that Christie's asked the Estate for permission to reproduce some of Basquiat's works in the auction catalog, which they denied. By including the copyright notice in the auction catalog, the sisters argue that Christie's is trying to "attempt to legitimize" the auction items and "mislead the public into believing that the Estate approved or endorsed the sale."

The federal complaint has four claims for relief: false endorsement, false advertising, deceptive trade practices and false advertising, and unfair competition. The sisters seek treble damages, compensatory damages, punitive and exemplary damages, costs and attorney's fees and injunctive relief prohibiting Christie's from using "the Estate's name in any credits without the Estate's prior written authorization."

Christie's Postpones the Auction

A judge has not yet ruled on the preliminary injunction but that may not be necessary because Christie's has on its own (and as a result of the complaint) decided to postpone the auction, reports The New York Times. On the Basquiat auction website Christie's posted the following notice:

Christie's has decided to postpone the online-only sale of works from the Collection of Alexis Adler. Our goal is to allow time for all parties involved to reach an equivalent level of confidence in the validity of these items, so that the sale may resume at a later date.

We'd be surprised if the sisters have their day in court as it already looks like this case is going along the path to settlement. Even with a reputation as sterling as Christie's, there are always going to be treacherous legal waters to navigate when working with the estates of deceased artists. Let this be a lesson to all companies that work with artists or artists' estates: you can never be too careful when it comes to clearing copyrights.

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