Art Carny, Part 3: The Price of Frame

What to even caption this? image via

In 2016, Luna Luna organizer André Heller consigned a forged Jean-Michel Basquiat work to a very respectable dealer in Vienna, who made a pitchbook for it and took it to TEFAF in 2017. Heller made a frame out of painted broomsticks studded with nails, and bound together with twine. Heller cut up some of Basquiat’s little sketches that Heller had enlarged for the artist’s Luna Luna ferris wheel, collaged them around the frame, and then painted over them. Heller put a Basquiat head, a work on paper he bought in 1990 from Robert Miller Gallery, in the forged frame.

They were presented together, and available separately, as separate works: Untitled (1983) and Untitled (Frame) 1987. At TEFAF the drawing was $2 million, and the frame was $3 million. In the dealer’s catalogue for the work, Heller was interviewed by curator Dieter Buchhart, a leading expert on Basquiat, who asked repeatedly for details and context about the creation of the frame. Over and over, Heller spoke specifically, to make it sound like Basquiat made it, without explicitly saying he did. He talked about the idea, how he helped with the nails, because there were so many. It was part of the collaboration for Luna Luna. Heller connected the frame to Vodou, and said that Basquiat considered it an altar.

The drawing sold after TEFAF, and then the frame to go with it, for EUR800,000. At some point, the whole thing started to unravel, as Basquiat’s former assistant, and later Buchhart, called bullshit on the frame. Heller bought it back, unwinding the deal before it hit the media, and caught the attention of Viennese authorities, who decided not to pursue the fraud. Heller dismissed his actions as a “childish prank,” and his statements to Buchhart as an attempt to trip up a self-proclaimed Basquiat expert. He tried to get out of his forgery hole by saying he’d always just presented the frame as *A* frame with Basquiat drawings stuck to it, but his buyer called bullshit on that.

And so did Heller himself. Here [pdf] is the interview he arranged with Buchhart, published by the dealer he consigned with, to sell the forged Basquiat concoction he made and lied about. There was a lot of bullshit flying around the world in 2016, and this interview is definitely some of it.

And all of this was coming out literally at the moment Live Nation was buying Luna Luna and extracting it from its shipping containers for the first time in decades. So wild.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Wienerbroither & Kollbacher [pdf, aws/amazon]
2022: A work attributed to Basquiat at TEFAF was made by André Heller [artnews]
2023: Viennese prosecutors drop investigation into artist who forged Basquiat painting’s frame as a ‘prank’ [artnews]

Art Carny, Part 2: Birch, Please

When we last saw Luna Luna, the 1987 art amusement park recently reopened in Los Angeles after spending the last 37 years in a bunch of shipping containers in fields in Vienna and Texas, one thing seemed clear: Drake did not spend $100 million to buy it from its previous owners, the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation.

But the $100 million price is sort of unfair, a cheat, a third-round shorthand that was meant to get repeated in the same breath as Luna Luna and Drake. When the NYT first half-reported on Live Nation’s project, introduced to them by the Mugrabis, of bringing Luna Luna to Drake, the figure was floated as the “overall investment” that was “approaching $100 million.” What if it was the Mugrabis who tracked down Luna Luna at the Birch Foundation’s ranchette, made a deal for it, and flipped it, Yves Bouvier-to-Ryobolovlev-style, for a nice profit?

The Birch Foundation’s 990 filings with the IRS show that they sold the Luna Luna assets in 2022 for $15 million, $1.8 million below the “market value” carried on their balance sheet. So they actually lost money on their collection of Basquiats, Harings, and their Hockney, Dali, and Lichtenstein pavilions, at least on paper. Not-for-profit indeed. But they did still get $15 million in cash, right? Where’d that go?

While trying to figure out the details of Luna Luna’s history between its hype launch in 1987 by André Heller, and it’s re-emergence with Live Nation & Drake, two sidebar stories kept jumping into view: the first is Heller’s near miss with forgery charges. Heller tried to turn a minor Basquiat drawing into a major “Basquiat Artwork” by collaging the artist’s little sketches for his Luna Luna monkey butt ferris wheel onto a crude Africanist frame. He sold the work, then scrambled to buy it back when the heat was on, and then tried to blow off the whole thing as a “prank.”

The second, is the giant WTF that is the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation, and how did they end up with an agreement in 1990 to buy Luna Luna from Heller in the first place? We could ask André Heller, but I think the answer to the first question is also the answer to the second: the Birch Foundation is a giant pile of money and vast tracts of land under the complete and unaccountable control of one or two people who use it for what they want.

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Art Carny, Part 1: Hundred. Million Dollars

Screenshot from Luna Luna dot com, with an adaptation of Sabine Sarnitz’ 1987 aerial photo of Luna Luna installed in Hamburg

So Luna Luna is now a Drake joint, and it is open in Los Angeles. In the year-plus since news of the art amusement park’s re-emergence for the first time since its brief debut in Hamburg in 1987, the number being floated is $100 million. $100 million for a one-of-a-kind, first-ever, long-lost traveling carnival filled with rides and games designed by art stars like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein, Kenny Scharf, Salvador Dali…Sonia Delaunay…Jörg Immendorff…Georg Baselitz…did I mention Kenny Scharf? The list of 38 artists Viennese artist André Heller wrangled [actually 37, plus himself] was split neatly between famous artists and famous in Austria artists.

Sabine Sarnit’z 1987 aerial view of Luna Luna, first shot for Neue Revue, provided by the new Luna Luna Entity to the NYT

Heller worked from 1985-87 to make Luna Luna happen. It feels the initial $350,000 grant [sponsorship?] from Neue Revue, a German magazine, would have been eaten up by the $10,000 honorarium each artist was supposedly paid. And that’s before fabrication. It does sound like Heller had a rickety old traveling carnival at hand, so maybe all that was left was Viennese scenery painters blowing up artists’ sketches. [Heller claimed Delaunay “discussed her ideas” for a gateway to the park before she died in 1979, which “Heller’s artisans” realized. Or created from scratch. But let’s circle back to that.] It opened in a Hamburg park, had 250,000 visitors, according, I assume, to Heller, and was set to travel the world bring peace or whatever. It didn’t happen.

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