After Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tragic death in 1988, he left no will but 917 drawings, 25 sketchbooks, 85 prints, and 171 paintings. He also left several lawsuits by the US Tax Court, the Internal Revenue Service (‘IRS’), causing his heirs to face several years of tax administration before the estate could be properly managed.
Dying ‘intestate’, Basquiat’s estate passed to his separated parents, Gérard and Matilda, by law. Notably, his four-year long neglect of filing tax returns, even as his art began to sell briskly, caused various IRS-lawsuits. This considerably slowed down the process of probating his estate, meaning the administration of the estate, the transfer of the ownership of the deceased’s property, and the handling of their debt under the supervision of a ‘probate court’ and following certain rules. During this process, Gérard saw himself forced to auction off a number of his son’s paintings in order to pay the IRS.
Subsequently, the family’s struggle with the IRS continued. After Matilda died intestate in 2008, Gérard became her executor, as well. Shortly after that, together with his two daughters, he filed suit against the IRS, claiming that Basquiat’s oeuvre was overvalued by nearly $66 million and contesting the requested tax and penalty fee of $18.5m required by the organisation.
When Gérard died in 2013, having guarded and promoted this son’s legacy for 25 years, he left not only the treasure trove of his son’s works but also an ongoing IRS audit that had frozen any movement on the pricey paintings to his daughters.
This case is a reminder of the burden which intestacy and the neglection of taxation issues can have on an artist’s estate. Rectifying tax-related legal action can cost the estate time, energy and financial resources, all of which are better invested in the management and promoting of the deceased’s legacy. Therefore, it is important to prevent such issues from arising altogether, or to be able to react swiftly as they arise, by resorting to the help of trustworthy professionals.