SOHO — Daniel Himmelfarb paints a vivid picture of the time New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat handed him a three-paneled piece of artwork.
It was around 1980, in Himmelfarb's popular SoHo store, an emporium of art supplies and curios that catered to the neighborhood's creative class. Basquiat, a frequent customer and sometimes thief, had racked up a $300 bill for photocopies, paintsticks and acrylics.
Not yet the art scene's Downtown darling, Basquiat didn't have cash to pay. To settle the debt, he handed Himmelfarb three oil paintings of a colorful skyscraper, wrapped in a black garbage bag.
“He said, ‘I brought you this painting, which I would like to trade with you for these materials,” Himmelfarb recalled.
A self-described aging hippie who proudly touts his eye for art, Himmelfarb accepted the offer, and held onto the triptych, even after the store, Jamie Canvas, closed in 1986.
Basquiat would go onto a tragically short but coruscant career, leaving behind a singular collection of work where pieces sell for as much as $20 million today.
The twice-divorced Himmelfarb lives thriftily in his mother's Queens Village apartment. The 65-year-old had three other art supply stores in the city at various times. The last closed in 1997. Now he collects Social Security and supplements his income by auctioning tchotchkes online.
Selling the triptych would give him a comfortable nest egg. The problem is, he can't seem to convince the right people that it's real.
In 1998 Himmelfarb tried to sell the paintings and presented them to Sotheby’s. The auction house accepted the triptych for its catalog, but the night before bidding, it was yanked. The authentication committee for the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat had reviewed the triptych, and sent a letter to Sotheby’s deeming it a fake.
Without the committee’s imprimatur, the triptych was worthless. There was no appeal and no second opinions.
Himmelfarb, who is prone to imbuing his travails with heightened melodrama and self-deprecation, said the nixed sale left him full of "despair and suicidal."
Fourteen years later, he still holds a grudge. He calls the committee’s decision arbitrary and a symptom of the whimsical world of art sales, where provenance is important but the powerbrokers behind the deal matter even more.
“It’s definitely who underwrites you, how you come recommended and the reputation of that person,” said Himmelfarb, who wears a fedora to cover his receding salt-and-pepper hair.
To make his case, he points to a Basquiat drawing — one the committee verified as real — that he and his ex-wife sold in August for $100,000. Himmelfarb got the drawing the same way — the artist gave it to him in exchange for photocopies at Jamie Canvas.
The difference, he says, is that this time he had a respected figure in the art world make a call to Sotheby’s, which then submitted it to the committee.
“The whole thing is just how arbitrary it is,” Himmelfarb said. “Big sums of money are involved. It’s very unregulated.”
The committee, which is run by Basquiat’s father, Gerard, and includes a rotating board of experts, dissolved in September after 18 years and reviews of 2,000 works of art. In announcing its closure, the committee said it "believes that it has fulfilled its goal of providing the public with an opportunity to obtain an opinion as to the authenticity of works purportedly created by Jean-Michel Basquiat."
It did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The closure has buoyed Himmelfarb’s spirits. He thinks he may have a second chance — that another dealer will take a look at the triptych and realize it’s a bona fide Basquiat.
“I hope to be vindicated and some kind of fairness to ensue, rather than suffering at the whim of the autocratic committee,” he said.
Himmelfarb has a knack for crossing paths with cultural touchstones.
He spent part of his childhood in the Lower East Side's Knickerbocker Village housing development, living on the same floor as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was 5 when the FBI arrested the couple for being Communist spies.
His first girlfriend was the daughter of an editor at Mad Magazine. He named his store after her.
He was 26 when he opened Jamie Canvas in 1973 at 148 Spring St., which is now the home of a Dr. Martens shoe store.
At the time, artists had flocked to the neighborhood’s vacant cast-iron warehouses and commercial lofts. Himmelfarb was an artist who also saw a business opportunity.
“The only guy who got rich during the Gold Rush was the guy selling the shovels,” said Himmelfarb, who takes off his tortoise-shell sunglasses and rubs his brow when he begins to talk about that time in his life.
“I knew it was the place to be. It was a great ferment of creative activity.”
The store offered hard-to-find supplies like Nicholson's Peerless watercolors, Marshall’s Photo Oils and a Xerox 6500 color copier, the only one in the area.
His wares attracted a who's-who of contemporary art.
Cindy Sherman would hole up in the cavernous shop’s back room, making slides of her photographs on its Cibachrome machine. Andy Warhol sent his lackeys there to buy Chinese toys sold on the second floor so he could copy their kitschy graphics.
And Basquiat spent hours at the shop’s whooshing color copier.
In the early ‘80s, Basquiat was a rising star whose singular style of incorporating primitive pictures with scrawled words and pop culture references had caught the eye of influential dealers. The success helped pay his rent in the neighborhood and fueled a drug habit that eventually killed him at 27 in 1988.
In author Phoebe Hoban’s biography, “Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art,” one of the artist’s assistants, Stephen Torton, recalls how they went into Jamie Canvas to pick up supplies — sometimes without paying.
“We’d spend four hundred dollars, but steal two hundred,” Torton told Hoban.
“We used to do it blatantly. We used to run around giggling like children, and I had a big shopping bag, and he would just run up with me to a shelf of oil sticks and knock them all into a bag, and they would just look at us in horror.”
Himmelfarb said Basquiat would bring 22-by-30-inch drawings and reproduce sections of them on the Xerox machine. The artist would then bring them back to his studio and paste them on paintings.
Once in 1982 Basquiat didn’t have money to pay a bill for the copies. This time he gave Himmelfarb one of those paintstick drawings. It was two pieces taped together scribbled with rudimentary images of women, oil derricks and the words “Illinois” and “Columbia."
Himmelfarb, who was having marital problems at the time, loved it and pinned it bed-level to a wall in a man-cave-like room in his SoHo apartment.
“It was the only thing I had in that room of mine,” he recalled. “I hung it at this level because I was always depressed and lying in my bed.”
Himmelfarb and his first wife, Suzanne Opton, divorced in 1988. She kept the drawing when they split, but after two decades of pestering, Himmelfarb persuaded her to sell it with him.
A well-connected associate of Himmelfarb paved the way for a sale by calling Sotheby’s about the drawing in 2011. Himmelfarb requested that the associate’s name not be printed.
Sotheby’s then contacted the Basquiat committee, who reviewed it and sent a letter authenticating the work. The auction house put it in its catalog, valuing it at between $200,000 and $300,000.
But when it didn’t sell, Himmelfarb and Opton went through a private dealer, who got $100,000 for it.
Himmelfarb thinks he could get $600,000 for the triptych. With the Basquiat committee now shuttered, he's again trying to get a dealer to sell it.
He also has plans for a slab of concrete.
When Basquiat was a teenager, he and his friend, Al Diaz, came up with a graffiti tag, "SAMO." Starting in the late '70s, the pair scrawled iterations of the tag around SoHo and, after they had a falling out, Basquiat continued on his own.
Either the pair or just Basquiat once wrote “SAMO as a neo art form” in wet cement on a sidewalk outside what was once Rizzoli's book store, on the west side of West Broadway, just north of Prince Street, Himmelfarb said.
Himmelfarb saw a business opportunity.
Shortly after the triptych’s rejection in 1998, he hired two Armenian construction workers to cut out the sidewalk with a concrete saw and then fill in the hole. He keeps the slab in a Queens Village storage facility.
Photographer Henry Flynt documented many of the SAMO tags from the ‘70s. One of his photographs perfectly matches the sidewalk Himmelfarb has.
“Someone will put it in the doorway to the museum or an exhibition hall. It’s totally unique,” he said of his bounty.
“I did a cultural service. I saved it for posterity, and it’s a piece of art history, so I should probably be remunerated,” he said.
“I’m as mercenary as the next guy.”