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Jean-Michel Basquiat's Dad Leaves Behind Son's Art, and Tax Problem

By James Fanelli | September 5, 2013 6:27am
 Gerard Basquiat, the father of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, stands in front of "Drycell," the last painting his son made before his death. Gerard died in July, leaving the painting to his longtime companion Nora Fitzpatrick.
Gerard Basquiat, the father of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, stands in front of "Drycell," the last painting his son made before his death. Gerard died in July, leaving the painting to his longtime companion Nora Fitzpatrick.
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Micke Sebastien/Getty Images

BOERUM HILL — The father of art phenom Jean-Michel Basquiat died this summer, leaving behind a treasure trove of his late son’s work — and an ongoing IRS audit that has frozen any movement on the pricey paintings, DNAinfo New York has learned.

Gerard Basquiat passed away at 77 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on July 7.

A will filed Aug. 13 in Brooklyn Surrogate's Court showed that he had an estimated $45 million estate, one largely composed of valuable art by his son.

The will does not itemize each piece of art in the collection, but offers tantalizing glimpses.

Gerard instructs in the will that his daughter Lisane Basquiat receive his painting of Jean-Michel by pop artist Andy Warhol. The father left his other daughter, Jeanine Heriveaux, a portrait of himself that Warhol also painted.

Gerard's longtime companion, Nora Fitzpatrick, was left “Drycell,” Jean-Michel's last painting before his death. She also received Gerard’s three-story Boerum Hill brownstone, where the artist spent his childhood.

But the artist’s dad also left behind a tax problem.

Gerard inherited the paintings when Jean-Michel died at 27 in 1988 of a drug overdose. Since he had no will, the artist’s parents split their son’s estate.

Jean-Michel’s mother and Gerard’s wife, Matilda, died in 2009. While she and Gerard were separated for more than 30 years, they never got a divorce.

After her death, Gerard became the executor of her estate, which also mainly consisted of their son’s art work. Matilda’s estate was initially valued at $5 million, but a subsequent appraisal of the art by auction house Sotheby’s brought it up to $37 million.

In 2010, Gerard paid $8.5 million in estate taxes, according to a recent court filing by Heriveaux, who is named as an executor of her dad’s estate. But since the tax filing, the Internal Revenue Service opened an ongoing audit inquiry, temporarily halting on any action with the estate’s assets, the court filing said. 

Heriveaux’s filing doesn’t explain the reason for the audit. Caryn Young, a lawyer for Heriveaux, did not respond to requests for comment about the audit. Gerard’s daughters also did not return requests for comment.

But Gerard Basquiat, a Brooklyn accountant, was no stranger to handling tax issues. During the last four years of his life, Jean-Michel didn’t file income tax returns, even as his art — a fusion of graffiti, pop-culture scrawlings and primitive drawings — sold briskly. After his son’s death, Gerard had to auction off some of Jean-Michel’s works to get square with Uncle Sam.

Aside from resolving his son’s taxes, Gerard spent the last 25 years of his life fiercely guarding and promoting Jean-Michel’s legacy.

He tightly controlled his son’s copyrights, methodically poring over movie scripts, biographies or gallery show publications that wanted to use his son’s works or images. He also devoted countless hours to stewarding an authentication committee that reviewed submitted pieces of art purporting to be by his son.

Stephen Torton, the artist’s assistant between 1982 and 1983, said Gerard’s tenacity helped send the prices of Jean-Michel’s art soaring.

“I think he did an incredible job of making sure his son's work was not sold cheaply,” Torton told DNAinfo New York. “You could not publish anything that included Jean-Michel without his approval. … He really ran [Jean-Michel’s estate] like a kingdom. He wasn't a compromiser and a sharer.”

Chaired by Gerard, the committee reviewed hundreds of submissions each year, determining whether a painting or a drawing was a true Basquiat.

If certified, the piece of art’s value could skyrocket. Those deemed phonies became worthless.

With the committee now closed and news of Gerard's death trickling out, gallery owner Annina Nosei predicts that more and more people will try to pass off a fake Basquiat painting as real.

“The work that Gerard did was enormous, classifying all the works that came to our attention, spending hours and hours talking about the works, really studying the provenance and criticizing them,” said Nosei, who served as a committee board member.

Gerard wasn’t always so deeply involved in his son’s career, and biographies and films have chronicled the strained relationship between the two.

Jean-Michel reportedly spoke to friends of a tough upbringing in his dad’s home. Gerard didn’t approve of his son’s lifestyle in SoHo, and shunned the artist’s friends.

Still, Torton said that while the father-son dynamic was complicated, the two weren’t estranged, noting they often had dinner together and Jean-Michel sought to earn his dad’s approval.

Nosei agreed that the publicly held view of the father-son dysfunction was a fallacy.

“People have this idea that Jean-Michel didn’t like his father or was resentful, and it’s a mistake,” she said. “Teenagers fight with their parents all the time. … [Jean-Michel] loved his father. The nature of the relationship was an enormous respect between them.”

Nosei said the connection between the two showed at an intimate memorial service held for Gerard in July in Manhattan.

Like at Jean-Michel’s funeral, songs by jazz legend Miles Davis were played at Gerard’s memorial.

“Gerard loved jazz. Gerard really loved music,” Nosei said. “The structure of jazz is very much what the work of Jean-Michel is about. That he took from his father.”