It could be worth hundreds of millions: 2 Torontonians trying to prove art collection is the work of Basquiat

A Toronto art dealer and a local designer are on a mission to prove a huge collection of paintings is by famed American painter Jean Michel Basquiat, but it's not easy when there is no written proof he painted them.

Los Angeles filmmaker telling the story of an art world mystery surrounding the great American painter

Jason Halter shows painted drums and a baseball from his own collection of work by Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Lorenda Reddekopp, CBC News)

A Toronto art dealer and a local designer are on a mission to prove a huge collection of paintings is by famed American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, but it's not easy when there is no written proof he painted them.

They're tight-lipped about exactly how many possible Basquiat pieces are owned by an American art collector, but their search to authenticate the pieces has piqued the interest of a filmmaker from Los Angeles, who's documenting the whole process.

If the works are Basquiat originals, the sale of these items could be mind-blowing — one Basquiat painting recently sold for $110.5 million US.

This undated photo provided by Sotheby's shows Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Untitled" which sold for a record $110.5 million US. (Sotheby's/Associated Press)

The mystery all started back in April when art dealer Talin Maltepe started getting phone calls from people wanting to buy pieces by the artist. At the time, Basquiat's record-setting painting was set to go to auction. 

Maltepe began searching for possible sellers and spoke on the phone with an American art collector, who wants to remain anonymous.  

He told her he owned many pieces that were likely by Basquiat, but none had the official paperwork.

Maltepe called her friend Jason Halter, an industrial designer and art dealer himself who also owns items painted by Basquiat, and the two Torontonians made the trip across the border together.

The artist himself can't vouch for the art, as Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988. During his lifetime, he went from being homeless to selling paintings for thousands of dollars and even collaborated with Andy Warhol. 

Art dealer Talin Maltepe could be on the verge of the biggest art deal of her career. (Barry Smith/CBC)

When Maltepe set eyes on the pieces, she was convinced.

"I got so teary-eyed, because they were so fabulous," she said. She was stunned viewing painting after painting.

She acknowledges she's no expert "but I've seen enough ... I can say it's one of his best collections I've ever seen." 

Halter calls himself a life-long admirer of Basquiat's work, who's amassed not only traditional canvas paintings by the artist, but even two drums and a baseball.

'Oh, my heavens, this is a remarkable collection'

He said he was overwhelmed as he stood paging through the paintings. 

"The first one you look at and you think it's unbelievable ... and then you look to the second ... and then the third and fourth," he explained, "with a feeling in your chest of, 'Oh, my heavens, this is a remarkable collection.'"

Trying to authenticate the pieces has taken Maltepe on trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles and soon, London.

Documentary maker Eduardo Celis Rojo wants the world to see the story about the two Torontonians, the mystery art owner and their quest to verify the paintings as Basquiat originals. (Barry Smith/CBC)

The journey by Maltepe and Halter is being documented by L.A.-based film producer Eduardo Celis Rojo of Shooters Films U.S.A.

To him, this story is fascinating on a number of levels. One is the dichotomy between wealthy art owners and starving artists, with people in the middle determining the value of art.

He also loves the story of Maltepe and Halter.

"How does this little lady in Toronto fall in love with an artist who's a street artist in New York?" he wonders about Maltepe.

'It is art history that's being done in your town'

And as for Halter, who has a greying beard and wears a baseball hat on backwards, Celis Rojo questions: "How did this guy start collecting this stuff that was considered crap and now it's worth millions?"

One side of a drum owned by Torontonian Jason Halter that he says contains original artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat. (Barry Smith/CBC)

"Through happenstance I just met these people that ... through a magical connection somehow are about to make history," said Celis Rojo.

"And it is art history that's being done in your town."

Celis Rojo said he hasn't inked a deal with a distributor for his film just yet, but to him the perfect Hollywood ending would be walking the red carpet in Toronto, seeing his film debut at next year's Toronto International Film Festival.

About the Author

Lorenda Reddekopp

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Lorenda reports on national and international news, as well as local stories based in Toronto. She grew up in small-town Saskatchewan and spent three years reporting from Guatemala.