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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Causa Heller: “The damage is irreversible”

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“It would have been a joke if Heller had allowed it to be paid and then identified himself as the author,” commented art expert and auctioneer Otto Hans Ressler to APA. But after the money had flowed, he personally saw things differently.

Fakes “sometimes so good that the artists themselves fall for it”

However, Ressler emphasizes that he is not a lawyer to judge this legally. In any case, he is certain: “The damage to the art market has been done and is irreversible.” Forgeries are “a huge problem for the art market, comparable to corruption in politics. It undermines trust and spoils the joy of art.” He sees part of the problem as “that the courts deal with these cases completely inappropriately, even though the sums involved are often large”. Proceedings in cases of counterfeiting are regularly discontinued. In any case, one cannot turn up one’s nose at Basquiat expert Dieter Buchhart, whom Heller convinced with his story: “Each of us can be wrong. Sometimes forgeries are so good that even the artists themselves fall for them.”

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In the meantime, Buchhart emphasized in a statement to the APA: “In the course of an interview conducted with Mr. André Heller on June 1, 2016, Mr. Heller stated that the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat himself made a frame with small drawing fragments by Basquiat. I have have not authenticated the frame, nor have I ever claimed to have done so.”

Patricia Pálffy, the responsible expert for international modern and contemporary art at the Dorotheum auction house, generally refers to the challenge of certification for Jean-Michel Basquiat. “Of course, the factor of oral history is very important. But the key thing is that you can then verify what was said,” emphasized the art historian in the APA interview. In the specific case of Basquiat, the problem is that there is no longer a central certification authority. The Authentication Committee of Jean-Michel Basquiat, in which Basquiat’s father Gérard was also represented, was only active until 2012. Since then, experts have had to carry out provenance research without this contact point.

The lawyer Oliver Plöckinger, who works in Linz and has habilitated on “piracy and art forgery”, gave the APA a legal assessment of the current cause. If you have produced a work yourself and sold it under the guise that it came from another artist, then the offense of fraud could be fulfilled, Plöckinger said in principle. A deception about facts, such as the origin, is necessary for fraud – if one claims, for example, that the self-made work is a Basquiat. On the other side, there must be a mistake, such as buying a Basquiat and receiving a heller, and financial loss must occur. In addition, an enrichment resolution is required. “It can be enough to deceive the buyer,” said Plöckinger.

However, since Heller bought back the frame, the grounds for waiving the penalty “active remorse” could have been met. Here, too, there are prerequisites: full compensation for damage, which must be done voluntarily and in good time – namely before a law enforcement agency becomes aware of the event. Then the criminal liability that has arisen would be lifted, there could be no further punishment.

At the Vienna public prosecutor’s office, there are currently no pending investigations in connection with the picture frame supposedly created by star artist Basquiat, but in fact by Heller. That said StA spokeswoman Nina Bussek on Thursday at APA request. If, according to the Viennese weekly Falter, a complaint is filed about the “childish prank”, as universal artist Heller describes the sale and subsequent repurchase, a public prosecutor will, as usual, examine the case for any initial suspicions. In response to an APA request, the Federal Criminal Police Office pointed out that any investigations would only be started if the public prosecutor’s office became active.

The “Falter” revealed on Wednesday that in 2017 a frame supposedly created by Basquiat in 1987, together with a portrait of the artist called “Untitled”, was offered for a million euros at the New York art fair Tefaf. While the authenticity of the painting is undisputed, the frame came from André Heller – which he presented differently in conversation with the expert Buchhart.

Ultimately, Heller admitted that it was about deceiving Buchhart. “Buchhart gave the impression that he was the best Basquiat expert on the planet. After he had talked me and everyone else down with what he knew about Basquiat, the day came when I wanted to test him,” says Heller im “Falter”: “In retrospect, the whole thing is firstly a childish prank. Secondly, it is naturally a show-off.”

A buyer in New York was not found at the time. “I wouldn’t have sold it either,” Heller claims in the “Falter” interview. Nevertheless, the Basquiat-Heller combo soon changed hands. The Viennese artist manager Amir Shariat first bought the drawing for a customer, while the frame went back to Heller – until the customer bought the fake frame in 2018, according to “Falter” for 800,000 euros.

However, Heller wrote in the purchase contract at the time: “There is no certificate of authenticity.” While Heller’s lawyer emphasizes that the work was only sold as a frame with Basquiat drawings on it, middleman Shariat says: “The frame was from Basquiat. That’s what Heller said.” Heller contradicted this as a result to the “Kurier”: “I said it was a frame with Basquiat drawings incorporated, and I passed it on as such.” In general, he rejects “large parts of the ‘Falter’ article as decidedly untrue”.

In any case, Heller has now bought the frame back, as he confirmed to the “Kurier”, “because I wanted to avoid my reputation being damaged by the allegations that were put up for discussion.” In the “Falter” he had decided: “I am a lucky person and yet I do not put myself in danger by being accused of forgery.”

Source: Nachrichten

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