The modern art world is interestingly ripe with prankster spirit. From Banksy—who has practically made his career on his impish activities as much as the calibre of his work—to Maurizio Cattelan—whose name was on everybody’s lips at the end of the decade thanks to a banana and some duct tape—there is no shortage of shenanigans. But sometimes the guise of a prank can simply be a cover for some ill intent, and it is hard to tell with André Heller’s Untitled (Frame) as information comes to light.
Austrian artist and poet André Heller revealed this past Tuesday that a work stated by him to be created by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, which had gone up at The European Fine Art Fair for $3 million in 2017, was in fact a fake. Consisting of a frame covered in illustrations by Basquiat that Heller glued on with an original portrait by the artist at the centre, Heller had told art historian and expert on Basquiat’s work Dieter Buchhart that the frame was authentic.
While the piece never sold at TEFAF, the frame and the authentic portrait did each find independent buyers, the forgery going for the sum of 800,000 euros. Buchhart appeared shocked to discover that Heller had lied to him about the piece’s origins. Heller, on the other hand, refuses to admit to any allegations of forgery, attesting to the German press that it was simply a “childish prank.” Despite this, he did in fact buy back the frame.
André Heller may not have meant any harm by his action, but the fact that his fabrication for Untitled (Frame) sold for such a grand amount on the back of a lie seems more malicious than that. But it does highlight questions of authenticity and repurposing in art, as well as to what extent can fool audiences and buyers in a moral manner. Whatever the punchline he originally intended, it seems clear that the joke is on Heller now.