Viennese Prosecutors Drop Investigation Into Artist Who Forged Basquiat Painting’s Frame as a ‘Prank’

An Austrian artist who forged the frame of a Basquiat painting once priced at $3 million will no longer face the scrutiny of authorities in Vienna, where prosecutors have dropped an investigation into him.

The Vienna public prosecutor’s office is no longer looking into André Heller, who said he had faked the work’s sculpted frame as a “childish prank” last year. The office said that because Heller had taken measures to bring the frame out of circulation before authorities found out about it, he had performed “active remorse” for the forgery.

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Jean - Michel Basquiat at the surprise birthday party for Susanne Bartsch at the Rainbow Roof, at Steven Greenberg's office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Thursday, September 19, 1985. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/Getty Images)

“The extensive investigations revealed that the suspect bought back the frame before the law enforcement authorities received a related complaint, thereby completely making up for the damage caused,” read a statement by the prosecutor’s office.

In 2022, Heller told the Austrian magazine Falter that he had produced the frame for Basquiat’s Untitled (Frame), from 1987. To the work Heller appended Basquiat sketches; the work’s border also included wood, red paint, nails, and parts of a black broom’s handle. Heller had acquired the painting in 1990, and went on to market the work’s frame as a bona fide creation of Basquiat, who died in 1988.

Heller appears to have spoken of the frame as being authentically by Basquiat to some experts, including the art historian Dieter Buchhart, who curated a survey of the artist’s work for Vienna’s Albertina museum in 2022. Last year, Buchhart told ARTnews, “I did not authenticate the frame and never claimed to have done so.”

The work, including its faked frame, made its way to the TEFAF art fair in New York in 2017, when the Vienna gallery Wienerroither & Kohlbacher attempted to sell it for a price between $2 million and $3 million. No one bought it. But, according to Falter, the glued-on sketch ultimately sold to Amir Shariat for 800,000 euros the year after.

Viennese investigators had been exploring whether Heller had committed fraud. Now, their inquiry is no longer.

Basquiat forgeries periodically surface, in part because the artist’s estate disbanded its authentication committee more than a decade ago. Just this year alone, a Miami dealer received a prison sentence for selling forged works by Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Banksy, and a Los Angeles auctioneer was handed five years of probation for aiding in efforts to create a faux provenance for inauthentic Basquiats.

The auctioneer’s case was related to a larger saga currently facing the Orlando Museum of Art, whose former director, Aaron De Groft, has been accused of knowingly exhibiting faked Basquiats that he marketed as he newly rediscovered works. Those pieces appeared in a 2022 exhibition at the museum that was raided by the FBI, whose investigation into De Groft is ongoing.

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