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NY lawsuit: Keith Haring Foundation unfairly blocked sales of artist's work

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Art collectors sued Keith Haring's foundation Friday, saying it has cost them at least $40 million by publicly labeling about 90 paintings by the late artist as "counterfeit" and "fake" as it refuses to fully evaluate them.

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Manhattan portrayed the Keith Haring Foundation Inc.'s approach to authentication as irrational and irresponsible, saying its authentication committee operated for many years "in secret, with little or no explanation, and often without ever physically inspecting the works."

It said the foundation Haring started shortly before he died of AIDS in 1990 disbanded the committee in 2012 to shield itself from litigation over its decisions but continued to obstruct the emergence of new Haring works through "malicious and wrongful tactics," including shutting down the display of Haring art at a Miami show in March.

The foundation last year sued organizers of the "Haring Miami" show, saying it was intended to defraud the public by exhibiting 200 purported works of art by Haring that were mostly fakes. The foundation said the paintings, mostly acrylic on canvas, would be worth about $40 million if they were authentic.

"Putting all these cheap Haring fakes into the market will depress the market and irreparably destroy the value of the authentic art and the reputation of the artist and the artwork," foundation lawyers wrote. In legal papers, they said a foundation director who visited the Miami show was "shocked at the blatant fraud involved" and saw only about eight authentic Haring works there.

Attorneys for the Haring foundation did not immediately comment on the New York lawsuit.

Nine art collectors maintained in their lawsuit Friday that the foundation was motivated to restrict the discovery of new Haring art in part to boost the value of paintings already on the market, including some pieces that the foundation itself sold between 2008 and 2011 for $4.6 million, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said a certificate of authenticity greatly increases the value of a piece of art, making it available for sale through major auction houses as well as through private buyers.

The lawsuit was brought by collectors who it said began buying works in 2007 from two of Haring's friends. One of them was Haring's former lover, a DJ who was introduced to Haring in 1982 and says the prolific artist gave him numerous pieces in the 1980s. The others were obtained from a graffiti artist, Delta Cortez.

Pictures of the artwork, attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit, had titles such as "Blue Baby," ''Baseball Mitt," ''Angel Winged TV" and "Green Man Holding Red Baby" and were in Haring's cartoonish sketching style.

Because many buyers wanted paperwork certifying the art as authentic, Cortez sometime after 1999 contacted the foundation, the lawsuit said. A representative initially expressed strong interest and asked for pictures and descriptions of the art, but the foundation eventually told him it would authenticate one or two of the pieces if he gave the foundation 10 pieces, according to the lawsuit.

Cortez again contacted the foundation in 2006 but was told that the foundation was not certifying artworks like the ones he wished to submit at that time and further conversations and inquiries "proved fruitless," the lawsuit said.

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