Contested Auction of Basquiat Painting Can Proceed, Judge Rules

Posted May 8, 2018 8:04 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The sale of “Flesh and Spirit,” a masterpiece by Jean-Michel Basquiat, will proceed next week as planned after a New York judge shot down an art collector’s effort to block it.

Hubert Neumann, the collector who filed a lawsuit against the auction giant Sotheby’s last week, “is a stranger to this piece of art,” Justice O. Peter Sherwood of State Supreme Court in Manhattan said in his ruling.

“I am at a loss to understand how he can exercise authority over a piece of work that he and the interest that he represents have no entitlement to,” the justice said.

In a statement Tuesday, Sotheby’s said, “We are pleased that the court found that Mr. Neumann’s claims are baseless and that next week’s auction should go forward unencumbered.” The sale is planned for May 16.

Neumann’s lawyer, Andrew G. Celli Jr., of the firm Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but he is expected to appeal the decision.

Neumann’s lawsuit cast a spotlight on an ugly dispute in a family with one of most valuable private collections of 20th-century art.

“Flesh and Spirit” was the prized asset of Dolores Ormandy Neumann, Hubert Neumann’s wife of 62 years. Their daughter Belinda was given the vast majority of Dolores Neumann’s property and was appointed the preliminary executor of her estate shortly before Dolores Neumann died in 2016, according to Hubert Neumann’s lawsuit.

Hubert Neumann was fully disinherited, and the couple’s other daughters, Melissa and Kristina, were left with only modest shares, the suit states. They signed affidavits supporting their father’s lawsuit.

Belinda Neumann did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Hubert Neumann never claimed that he owned the piece but said in his lawsuit that Sotheby’s had violated an agreement with him by not seeking his approval about the marketing of the painting, which he said Sotheby’s “botched.”

Sherwood disagreed. “With respect to the contract between Mr. Neumann and Sotheby’s, it doesn’t extend to a property such as this,” the justice said. “You haven’t established irreparable harm because there is no question here of the right of the estate to sell this unique piece of art.”

Neumann had also claimed that the $30 million estimate the auction house put on the painting is “far too low,” given that almost exactly a year ago, Sotheby’s sold “Untitled,” a 1982 painting of a skull by Basquiat, for over $110 million. The two paintings were marketed in similar fashion.

The judge went on to say that any dispute Neumann might have with respect to the painting could be “compensated by an award of money.”