MANHATTAN (CN) - The late artist Keith Haring's foundation destroyed the value of his paintings by calling them "fake," and ignored information that would prove their authenticity, art collectors claim in a $40-million lawsuit.
Elizabeth Bilinski and eight other collectors and dealers sued The Keith Haring Foundation, Haring's estate, and the foundation's directors, in Federal Court.
They claim the foundation inflated the value of Haring art owned by its members by refusing to authenticate other collectors' legitimate works and calling them counterfeit.
Haring, who died in 1990 at 31, rose to fame in the 1980s for his street culture-inspired paintings, murals and subway graffiti, many of which he created to benefit disadvantaged communities, orphanages and health centers.
He created murals and organized drawing workshops for children in New York, Tokyo and European capitals.
"Haring was an influential artist and social activist of the late 20th century," the collectors say in the lawsuit. "His work responded to the New York City street culture of the 1980s by expressing concepts of birth, death, sexuality, and war. Throughout his career, Haring devoted much of his time to public works with clear social messages concerning subjects like drug addiction and AIDS. As a result, his work was often heavily political and his imagery has become a widely recognized visual language of the 20th century."
His 1986 "Crack is Wack" mural has become a landmark on New York City's FDR Drive.
In 1989, shortly before his death, Haring established a foundation to continue his philanthropic work through contributions and grants to charitable and educational nonprofits.
The foundation maintains a collection of art and archives that facilitate research about the artist and the times and places where he lived and worked, according to its website.
"For many years, the foundation operated an authentication committee that accepted applications for review of artworks attributed to Haring," Bilinski's complaint states. "The committee made its decisions in secret, with little or no explanation, and often without ever physically inspecting the works. Indeed, in many cases, no inspection was performed because the works were being rejected for reasons entirely unrelated to their authenticity.
"In 2007, defendants agreed to review plaintiffs' application that defendants authenticate certain of the Haring works. Defendants denied the authenticity of the works based on their review of a single photographic transparency of each work. Defendant Julia Gruen, an authorized representative of the foundation and the estate, told plaintiffs, however, that defendants' opinion 'may change by reason of circumstances arising or discovered' after the date of the opinion. In reliance on this statement (and others), plaintiffs expended significant time and resources, over the course of many years, obtaining additional information establishing the provenance of the Haring works. However, the foundation and the authentication committee members ignored and failed to review the information provided by plaintiffs. Instead, defendants arbitrarily refused to consider the information, or to express an opinion on the authenticity of the Haring works, even though an artwork owned by the late Dennis Hopper, with provenance similar to the Haring works, was authenticated by the foundation following the actor's death in May 2010.
"An authentic Haring artwork can be worth millions of dollars in today's art market. However, without a certificate of authenticity from the foundation (or at least its tacit approval), no major auction house is willing to sell a Haring artwork. Moreover, by rejecting authentic Haring artworks, the foundation has inflated the value of works owned by the foundation and its representatives, all of which bear the foundation's certificate of approval. In fact, in just the years 2008 through 2011, the foundation sold more than $4.5 million of Haring artworks that it owns. The foundation has also used its authentication powers to carefully cultivate Haring's image and obscure important facts about his working methods (i.e., uncredited collaboration with other artists) and his personal narrative, which has benefited the foundation and its representatives.
"In September 2012, following years of litigation against other similarly constructed authentication committees in which art owners challenged their arbitrary and improper decisions, the foundation announced it was dissolving its own authentication committee. Despite the committee's dissolution, however, the foundation has continued its aggressive tactics by other means." (Parentheses in complaint).
The foundation announced in September 2012 that it was dissolving its authentication committee to focus on the foundation's charitable mission, according to the complaint.
The collectors claim, however, that the foundation disbanded the committee to evade liability for improper denials of authentic Haring works, and to inflate the value of works it owned and certified.
They claim major auction houses require certificates of authenticity, or at least the foundation's tacit approval, to sell Haring works.
And though the foundation claims to be out of the business of authentication, it continues to sabotage the sale of noncertified Haring works, according to the lawsuit.
In March 2013, the plaintiffs exhibited works at a Haring show in Miami. The foundation sued the show's organizers in Federal Court, claiming that the Haring works on display were "fakes," "forgeries," and "counterfeits," according to Bilinski's complaint.
The collectors claim the foundation also issued a press release falsely accusing them of "suspected fraud" and of trying to pass off works it had rejected as authentic Harings.
Bilinski and her co-plaintiffs, who bought about 80 Haring works from friends and collaborators of the late artist, including from Haring's former lover, say they went to great lengths to prove the artworks' authenticity.
But the foundation, after rejecting 41 of the Harings as "not authentic" in 2007, refused to review new evidence, including letters of provenance, forensic studies and statements from the works' original owners, according to the lawsuit.
The collectors claim the foundation never inspected their Harings. The only time one of its representatives got close to the artworks was at the Miami show, where he took photos of some of them without authorization, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs claim they had to withdraw the works from the Miami show, and lost millions of dollars in prospective sales.
The foundation acknowledged that "if the approximately 80 acrylic works on canvas in the show were real Harings, their collective value would be more than $40 million," according to the complaint.
The collectors seek $40 million in compensatory and punitive damages for defamation, civil conspiracy, interference with prospective business relations, false advertising, trade libel, intentional infliction of economic harm, and unjust enrichment.
They are represented by Brian Kerr with Brower Piven.
Michael Ward Stout, an attorney for the foundation, told The New York Times, "We believe that the allegations are not supportable, and we will address them going forward."
The foundation did not immediately respond to Courthouse News' request for comment. (On Wednesday, Feb. 25, after this article had been taken down, the Haring Foundation said in a statement: "The Foundation believes the lawsuit filed on Friday in New York is without merit and it will defend the matter in court. The Foundation will continue to protect its intellectual property rights and pursue fakes and fraudulent activity involving Keith Haring. The Foundation will make no further comment about the matter at this time.")