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New York dealer sues artist Derek Fordjour for $1.45m

Gallery owner and real estate investor Robert Blumenthal claims the artist failed to deliver seven works promised in a $20,000 deal made in 2014

Dealer Robert Blumenthal in his New York gallery. Photo: Frank Sun

New York art dealer Robert Blumenthal is suing artist Derek Fordjour for $1.45m, according to court documents filed in a New York supreme court on Tuesday.

The dealer claims he paid the artist $20,000 for 20 works of art while Fordjour was a struggling art student at Hunter College in New York after a studio visit in 2014 where the two discussed the potential for a show at Blumenthal's gallery. Over several years, the artist eventually delivered 13 of the 20 works of art but he “has failed and refused to deliver the balance of the artwork despite repeated requests that he do”, the court papers say.

The alleged undelivered works include two paintings and five works on paper, the fair market value of which Blumenthal contends is now $1.45m.

Fordjour’s career has been on a meteoric rise over the past couple of years. The Tennessee-born artist of Ghanaian heritage became well known for his multidisciplinary work exploring race, violence, displacement and inequality in American society. Among Fordjour’s rapidly growing list of collectors are A-list celebrities like Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Drake.

His first museum show, Shelter, opened last month at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and his recent public mural commission for New York’s Whitney Museum overlooking the High Line, Half Mast (2018), drew critical acclaim. At the 2018 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, the London dealer Josh Lilley quickly sold out his entire booth of the artist’s work before hosting two successful solo shows featuring Fordjour last year. The artist also had a solo show in Los Angeles at Night Gallery in 2019 just as the New York gallery Petzel announced its co-representation of the artist with Lilley and Night.

Blumenthal, a real estate investor who runs an eponymous gallery on New York’s Lower East Side claims he saw that Fordjour “possessed an artistic vision and that he could become a successful artist” after their studio visit in 2014 and the dealer “set out to foster Fordjour’s career, providing gallery representation and financial support”, according to the court papers.

“Robert was instrumental in making the initial market for Derek’s work. It is sad that the rising star of Derek’s success has apparently blinded him to the person who first took a risk on him and made an agreement which Derek now ignores,” Mark Seidenfeld, Blumenthal’s lawyer, tells The Art Newspaper.

“This case is a classic example of someone who held himself out to be a dealer trying to exploit an artist at the outset of his career.  Mr. Fordjour has always acted in good faith with respect to Mr. Blumenthal and fully expects to prevail in this lawsuit," says Maaren Shah, Fordjour's lawyer.

Blumenthal has pursued legal action against artists before. In 2015, he countersued painter Dean Levin, a favourite of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, for $300,000 after the artist filed a claim of non-payment for work sold through Blumenthal’s gallery.

Update: This article has been amended to include a statement provided from Maaren Shah.