It has been a big year for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s growing legacy, with a touring retrospective for the artist attracting crowds in London and one of his paintings setting the record for the priciest work ever sold at auction by an American artist back in May.
Given the red-hot state of the Basquiat market, those holding his works are taking the necessary steps to secure their pieces, updating insurance policies and the like. One thing they cannot do, though, is obtain an official judgment from the Basquiat Authentication Committee, since that body ceased operations in September 2012.
The committee—whose members included the artist’s father, Gerard Basquiat, and collector Larry Warsh—operated for 18 years, and shut down at a time when many authentication groups, like those of the Andy Warhol Foundation, were facing legal action from collectors contesting their judgments.
Some who did not submit their work to the Basquiat committee and other now-dissolved authentications boards are now searching for ways to certify their holdings, like Kim Reeder, a Basquiat friend and former flight attendant who says that she received a work by the artist in 1984 and has never displayed it beyond her living room.
“I was dating his roommate, so we were in the same house all the time,” Reeder said in a phone interview, recalling the heady days she spent in the company of Basquiat and her then-boyfriend, Selwyn O’Brian, at a home owned by Andy Warhol on Great Jones Street.
“We were always together, like the Three Musketeers,” Reeder said, remembering the long hours they would spend “drinking Cristal at Mr. Chow’s” and hanging in the studio late into the night as Basquiat finished works that would be ready for pick-up by his gallery the next morning.
(Reeder, to be clear, is not the flight attendant who appears in Phoebe Hoban’s Basquiat biography, telling the artist, who had poured a “quarter-ounce of coke . . . on a cocktail plate,” “You can’t do that on a plane. The authorities are going to be waiting for you.” As Larry Gagosian tells the story, Basquiat replied, “Oh, I thought this was first class.”)
“If there was ever anything I liked Jean told me I could have it,” Reeder said. She eventually settled on a drawing she felt was suited to her home—“just the right size.” The drawing contains a bird (identified in Basquiat’s distinctive handwriting as GEESE) perched above some hieroglyphic-like symbols—a motif the artist later xeroxed and incorporated into another series of works focusing on iconography from ancient Egypt.
“It wasn’t controversial like some of his other pieces,” said Reeder. “It was just Jean, something that he did and I loved it. It really resonated with me.”
Reeder, who is now a freelance makeup artist, recently found herself preparing Jennifer Cohen, the co-managing director of the arts nonprofit POBA, for a PBS interview, and during their conversation, mentioned her Basquiat that she had never had authenticated. Cohen thought that POBA, which works with collectors, artists, and estates to preserve the legacies of artists and to authenticate work, suggested that she might be able to help.
POBA approached Richard Polsky, an author and Warhol aficionado, who has developed a business in authenticating works by Warhol, Basquiat, and Keith Haring. (Official boards for all three artists have shut down.) In order to establish the provenance of Reeder’s drawing, Polsky asked for various sources of evidence, starting with some background on how the piece got into Reeder’s hands.
In order for Polsky to corroborate this story, he instructed Reeder to take the drawing to Alvarez Fine Art Service, a New York–based conservation company. There the work was removed from its frame for the first time since it was prepared by Joseph Framers, a fact that was established courtesy of the company’s stamp as well as tape that was contemporaneous to that time period. The real clincher, according to Polsky, was the rare inclusion of a personal inscription scrawled in purple crayon on the bottom right corner, which included the words “To Kim,” Basquiat’s signature, and the work’s date, 1984.
“That was one of the ways Basquiat prevented people from using him,” said Regan McCarthy, a fellow director at POBA who assisted Reeder with the authentication process. “He personalized works for his most important friends, as an indication that he intended the work as a gift. Basquiat gave it to her because he knew she would keep it.”
Between the Alvarez assessment and photographs of the drawing in Reeder’s apartments throughout the years, Polsky signed off on the work’s provenance.
Reeder is not sure what she eventually plans to do with the work, which is currently being stored in New Jersey. In her view, though, Polsky’s approval has, in some sense, changed the work. “Now that it has value, I don’t even know how to wrap my head around that,” she said. “For me to think of my piece other than what it is, is hard to see. It was just a gift from my friend.”