It is no surprise to learn that an art dealer has closed down. It is a bit more surprising, however, when that dealer disappears without a trace. That is what happened in late March to Vrej Baghoomian, whose gallery, a virtual airplane hangar in SoHo, had been most closely associated with the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Baghoomian had been pursued by his creditors, among them the New York financing firm Rosenthal and Rosenthal, which had been a partner with Baghoomian in some lucrative secondary-market transactions. (One angry creditor with a stick was stalking Baghoomian in the lobby of his gallery’s SoHo building on 28 March, the day the gallery bolted its doors shut.) Before opening his own gallery in the late 1980s, the Teheran-born Baghoomian was known to have operated a cash business in a SoHo basement where artists desperate for money could bring their works. That gallery was owned by Baghoomian’s cousin, the dealer Tony Shafrazi, also known for spray-painting Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Museum of Modern Art. Eventually Baghoomian came to represent Basquiat, when that artist had broken ties with his previous dealers (see The Art Newspaper No. 13, December 1991, p. 3). Baghoomian organised Basquiat’s last show in New York, and after Basquiat died of a drug overdose in the spring of 1988, just a few months after that show closed, Baghoomian claimed a fifty percent share of all the works in Basquiat’s estate, numbering in the hundreds.
At the time of Baghoomian’s disappearance, he was engaged in a bitter legal battle with the Basquiat estate, a battle that appeared to be weighing decisively in the estate’s favour. The Basquiat estate is after twenty or so paintings, which Baghoomian says he sold for cash immediately after Basquiat’s death.
Those paintings have still not been recovered, and with Baghoomian’s departure, there is a void of knowledge about Basquiat’s last work. Baghoomian was the only dealer close to the artist at that time. The dealer has also become something of a legend for his expertise in detecting the growing number of Basquiat fakes, an issue that is bound to attract further attention as the first retrospective of Basquiat’s entire career opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York this autumn.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bye Bye Baghoomian'