A trove of Basquiat drawings in a French village? Experts scoff
The Volcano gallery in Nuits-Saint-George, France, is showing 35 drawings it says are unseen works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. JEFF PACHOUD AFP

Modern art rebel Jean-Michel Basquiat turned out scores of drawings in his short career, but more than a few eyebrows are being raised over a French gallery show of 35 unknown -- and virtually priceless -- works from the artist.

Shortly after the works went on display last month in Nuits-Saint-Georges, a village in the heart of Burgundy wine country, experts began casting doubt on their supposed origins and authenticity.

"These have never been shown to the public," says an employee at Volcano, a gallery in a rustic stone house, where visitors can peruse the sketches that do indeed jibe with Basquiat's frenetic style.

Many include the crown-of-thorns motif often employed by the former graffiti artist, who was spotted by Andy Warhol only to die of a heroin overdose in 1988 at just 27 years old.

The gallery's directors are no longer speaking to the press, but initially said that "several experts" had ascertained there is no reason to believe the works are fake. They are not naming names.

Other experts are not holding back.

"It's a scam. These are crude imitations," said Richard Rodriguez, a Paris art collector who famously exposed three fake Basquiat works at the 1994 FIAC fair in the French capital.

He hasn't made the trip himself to inspect the works, but says he saw enough while watching a television news report on the show.

"I don't need to see them. It's so crudely done that it's obvious," he said.

Nordine Zidoun, a Luxembourg gallery owner and specialist in African-American art who organised a major showing of Basquiat works four years ago, agreed that "it's just not possible" the drawings are genuine.

He noted the absence of any signature, even though Basquiat himself signed "90 percent" of his works.

"A Basquiat drawing is worth two to three million euros," he added. "They have 80 or 90 million euros just sitting in their gallery, behind a few panes of glass?"

- 'They look awful' -

Basquiat's stature has soared in recent years, fuelling eye-watering prices for his works at auction -- in June, his drawing "Untitled (Head)" was sold for $15.2 million by Sotheby's in New York.

Volcano's owners accused their critics of casting aspersion on the show just to gain publicity.

They claim the new trove of drawings was amassed by Dominique Viano, a Burgundy-based artist who gathered them from various collectors who in turn had acquired them from Danny Rosen, an American actor and friend of Basquiat.

"The provenance is ridiculous," said Lisa Rosen, an art restoration expert in New York and Danny's sister, adding that her brother never had 35 Basquiat drawings.

"And the drawings, those I saw in the press, they're definitely fake. They look awful," she said.

Viano, who is also no longer responding to requests for comment, told France 3 television last month that experts had proven their authenticity, including the Parisian gallery owner and Basquiat specialist Enrico Navarra.

But Doriano Navarra, who took over his father's gallery after his death this summer, denied Viano's claim. "We did not give them any certification," he told AFP.

So far, local prosecutors have not opened an inquiry, but police in Nuits-Saint-Georges have alerted the national art trafficking police in Paris.

For Fred Hoffman, an art historian in New York who worked with Basquiat, "it is hard to imagine a big group of works only coming to light at this time."

He said he refused to give his opinion on any works not certified by the Authentication Committee for the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, which he was part of for several years.

The committee's president and the artist's older sister, Lisane Basquiat, did not respond to requests for comment.

© 2020 AFP