Collector Sues to Block Auction of Basquiat, Exposing Ugly Family Dispute

Posted May 5, 2018 2:43 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “This is a case about a broken promise, a family disagreement and an art masterpiece that, if this Court does not step in now to save it, will be lost to the people who love it, and to New York, forever.”

This is not the opening voice-over for a Netflix drama. It is, rather, the first sentence in a lawsuit filed Thursday in state Supreme Court in Manhattan against the auction giant Sotheby’s by Hubert Neumann, a New York art collector whose family famously owns, and closely guards, one of the most staggering private collections of 20th-century art in the United States.

The masterpiece in question — “Flesh and Spirit,” a 12-by-12-foot painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat — is days away from the auction block. It is a prized asset of the estate of Neumann’s wife, Dolores Ormandy Neumann, who died in September 2016, and its potential sale shines a spotlight on what appears to be a nasty family dispute.

Shortly before her death, Dolores Neumann executed a will that fully disinherited her husband of 62 years and gave their middle child, Belinda, the vast majority of her property while appointing Belinda the preliminary executor of her mother’s estate, according to Hubert Neumann’s lawsuit. The couple’s other daughters, Melissa and Kristina, were left with only modest shares, the suit states.

The will, which is being disputed in court, was executed while Dolores was receiving serious medical treatment and was the product of undue influence and is therefore invalid, according to Hubert Neumann’s lawsuit.

But the will’s legality is not the crux of Neumann’s suit against Sotheby’s: He claims Sotheby’s “botched” the marketing of the Basquiat, which is to be auctioned May 16, violating an agreement he said he had made with the auction house that is in effect through April 2019.

In the agreement, according to the lawsuit, Sotheby’s promised Neumann, 86, that it would seek his approval on “all matters relating to cataloging, placement and exhibiting each and every work consigned.” He said the promise was broken “in spectacular fashion, and with lasting consequences.”

Instead, according to the lawsuit, Sotheby’s was “shamelessly willing to capitalize on a difficult family situation” and entered into an agreement with Belinda to sell the painting.

Melissa and Kristina Neumann signed affidavits supporting their father’s lawsuit.

Attempts to reach Belinda Neumann by phone and email were unsuccessful.

“This 11th-hour claim is entirely without merit,” Sotheby’s said in a statement. “We are confident that the ‘agreement’ Mr. Neumann relies on does not exist, and the court will find in our favor and the auction will proceed as scheduled.”

Neumann is also claiming that the $30 million estimate that the auction house put on the painting is “far too low,” given that almost exactly a year ago, Sotheby’s sold another Basquiat, “Skull,” for over $110 million. That sale set the record for a work by any U.S. artist as well as for a work by an African-American artist, and it was the first post-1980 painting to go for over $100 million.

“Flesh and Spirit,” which received a several-page spread in the Sotheby’s catalog and is on its cover, is Lot 24, the same as last year’s Basquiat.

Neumann, who said the auction house failed to highlight or mention the work’s many unique characteristics, like its “hinged construction,” “multipanel composition” and “deep art-historical significance,” is seeking a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction, or both, against the impending auction.

In his suit, filed by Andrew G. Celli Jr. of the firm Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady, Neumann does not claim that he owns the work of art but that “New York law forbids the disinheriting of a surviving spouse” and that he has a “statutory right to one-third of his wife’s estate.”

Neumann has made clear in the past that many parties covet the pieces in his family’s collection, which includes works by Picasso, Warhol and Lichtenstein.

A 1997 profile of Neumann in The New York Times referred to him as “a hunted and haunted man” who believes that “every museum director in the United States is awaiting the day when he is comfortably ensconced not at their dinner tables but in a coffin, and his prized art collection is finally passed on to someone new, preferably them.”

“Museum people are always looking at me as if I’m already dead,” Neumann said at the time. “They just can’t wait for me to die. How’s your health? they want to know.”