Purvis Young, “Untitled” (c. 1985–1999), wood and paint on fiberboard, 48 x 48 inches (courtesy Rubell Family Collection, Miami, photos by Chi Lam)

An article published in the Washington Post Magazine dives deep into the ill-fated battle over works by the beloved Miami artist Purvis Young left behind after his death in 2010. The piece describes how a group of attorneys, claiming the artist did not have a market, were able to sidestep a proper appraisal of his estate and keep the works for themselves — ultimately leaving Young’s beneficiaries disinherited and revealing “troubling aspects of Florida’s laws that are supposed to protect the vulnerable.” 

While Young’s work resides in major institutions across the United States, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, during his lifetime the artist was known for flooding the city itself with his art, putting up works in public spaces as in his famous “Goodbread Alley” murals (1972). Young was born in Liberty City and came up in Overtown, both historically Black neighborhoods in Miami. After serving a prison sentence for burglary, he began painting on any surface he could get his hands on, from spare scraps of wood and cardboard to discarded cabinet doors. His lush works distill the most pressing issues of Young’s community, including drug abuse, displacement, and mass incarceration, into vivid landscapes of color populated by beautifully expressive, abstracted figures.

The Miami-based collectors Don and Mera Rubell acquired the contents of his studio in 1999, but Young would be active and prolific for another decade. According to the Post, he named as the main beneficiaries of his will Eddie Mae Lovest, one of his closest friends, and 12 of her daughters and grandchildren. Though his assets were modest, they included 1,884 of his works. Lovest expected the works would be sold and her family would receive the proceeds, but instead, she was appalled to discover a judge had released all the works to a group of lawyers to fulfill pending debts, leaving her family empty-handed.

In the final years of Young’s life, Miami-Dade probate court judge Maria Korvick determined he required guardianship, an arrangement in which a surrogate is appointed to handle the affairs of vulnerable adults suffering from mental or physical disabilities and make decisions on their behalf. Martin Siskind, one of Young’s dealers, had suggested the artist qualified for guardianship. Previously, Young had sued Siskind for paying him inadequately and refusing to report on his art sales, among other allegations.

Per Korvick’s ruling, lawyer David Mangiero was appointed Young’s “guardian of the property” and would oversee his finances. The cost of the guardianship (which Young always insisted he did not need), as well as lawyer fees he had accrued over time, amounted to around half a million dollars in debt by the time of his death. Despite growing institutional and commercial attention to Young’s works, Mangiero gave the works left by Young an estimated fair market value (FMV) of $1 each. Mangiero also bumped the guardians and lawyers to the top of the list of creditors to be paid, above Young’s heirs, and “asked that [they] be paid in artwork and eventually proposed that they choose pieces worth twice the amount they were owed to offset dealer commissions should they place the work with a gallery,” reports the Post.

Yet Mangiero never sought a formal appraisal of the works, claiming it would cost “tens of thousands of dollars,” and instead held on to them for years. Leon Rolle, a friend of Young’s and former practicing lawyer, helped Mangiero facilitate a few sales and kept the Lovests apprised of any offers. “They still expected that Mangiero would eventually find a buyer and the art would sell for millions,” says the article.

But in early 2018, Rolle received an e-mail from a gallerist who said he had acquired Young’s estate. Courthouse records confirmed Korvick had waived the appraisal requirement and agreed to let Mangiero take the artworks to as pay, reasoning that there was “no market” for Young’s art and that Mangiero had done all in his power to find buyers without success. Seven of the eight attorneys and guardians divided up the works among themselves, and in late 2017, Mangiero along with three other lawyers sold around 1,000 works to art collector and financial adviser Alan Bluestein.

According to the Post, auction records for Young include sales of works for upwards of $20,000 and up to $42,500, and the article cites the New York-based dealer James Fuentes as saying he has sold paintings for around $35,000. Bluestein himself has not sold the works he acquired, believing their value will increase. For a multitude of reasons, prices for Young’s works have been known to fluctuate, with many selling at significant fractions of these figures. Still, the numbers seem to show that the claim of a lack of market for Young’s oeuvre was unfounded, or at least foolhardy. Beyond the legal loopholes the case elucidates, the system that dispossessed Young’s heirs is a cautionary tale about the art world’s many opacities and ambiguities, and how they send shock waves through the lives of people outside of it.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...