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Report: Artist Peter Max has dementia, raising authenticity questions




A renowned 81-year-old artist whose prolific output has long been a staple at cruise ship auctions has advanced dementia, calling into question the authenticity of the work produced under his name in recent years, according to a bombshell New York Times report published Tuesday.

Peter Max’s vibrant and psychedelic artwork captured the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and went on to mesmerize Americans in the decades since. But his mental faculties have been diminishing since 2012 and he hasn’t created a painting in four years, The Times reported, citing nine people familiar with his condition.

Illustrator and graphic artist Peter Max unveils his Paul McCartney Portrait Series at the Peter Max Studio on June 18, 2012 in New York City.
Getty Images/Simon Russell

Instead, multiple Times sources alleged, a team of painters created Max’s recent work, working above a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, some of whom were recruited off the street and paid minimum wage.

As many as 18 assistant painters and five people for etchings have been working in a tightly guarded studio above the Shun Lee restaurant on the Upper West Side, imitating Max’s style, seven people who witnessed the events told The Times.

Peter Max’s artwork is a big seller on cruise ships

Peter Max’s artwork on the bow of the Norwegian Breakaway.
Wessel Blokzijl/Flickr

Yet the artwork has for years proved wildly lucrative in cruise ship auctions held by Park West Gallery, which has its own showrooms on prominent cruise lines like Royal Caribbean and Carnival. One Norwegian cruise ship even features Max’s artwork splashed across its hull.

Park West auctioneers tout Max’s work to cruisers lured by free champagne. A single piece can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, and the company operates on dozens of ships all around the world.

Read more: A French art museum just discovered half of its paintings are fake

“The cruise ship art, he signs his name but he doesn’t do a blink of art on there,” Leo Bevilacqua, Max’s close friend, told The Times. “He’s not capable of doing it anymore.”

But Park West’s executive vice president of marketing, John Lichtenberg, told INSIDER that allegations Max has not painted anything in the last four years were “completely untrue.”

The cruise ship Norwegian Breakaway is docked at a pier along the Hudson River April 2, 2017 in New York City.
Getty Images/Robert Nickelsburg

Another art company owner who recently met with Max even told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday that he personally witnessed Max paint roughly two weeks ago at an exhibit.

Nim Vaswani, owner of Road Show Company, told the newspaper that he has worked with Max for 22 years. Vaswani said that while Max has clearly slowed down, “he knows who he is.”

Park West insists Max is still creating the paintings

Last fall, Park West hired the art lawyer Luke Nikas and the art fraud investigator Robert Wittman to look into allegations that Max wasn’t creating the paintings sold under his name.

Part of the controversy appears to stem from conflicting accounts on the extent to which Max’s recent works have relied on accepted artistic practices of using studio assistants.

Read more: A fake painting that sold for £8.4 million signals a highly skilled forger in the arts market

Patrons look at the collection of paintings available for bid before the start of the Park West Gallery art auction at the Hilton Woodland Hills in Los Angeles on October 23, 2000.
Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As a number of high-profile artists have acknowledged, many of them rely on teams of studio assistants to carry out their vision or concept — sometimes without the artist lifting a brush at all. The practice dates back centuries, and was used by Renaissance painters such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt.

Nikas told Business Insider that the investigation found that the studio’s practices met every legal standard. He added that Park West believes that every Peter Max painting it sold was either painted by Max himself, or painted by Max’s studio assistants under his direction and then approved and signed directly by Max — a practice that is consistent with Max’s longtime production process.

Sources told The Times Max is merely signing his name to the works

Artist Peter Max during his retrospective with the Road Show Company exhibit at Northbrook Court on Saturdyy, Sept. 6, 2014, in Northbrook, IL.
Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP

But the Times, citing seven sources who had witnessed the arrangement, reported that Max’s involvement in recent years consisted mainly of twice-weekly stops at the Upper West Side studio, where he would be told to hold out his hand, clutch a brush, and spend hours signing “Max” on paintings that had been created by other artists.

Though Max may have looked physically healthy during his recent appearances at gallery events and on cruises, a number of his travel companions told The Times his mental faculties were waning. They said he would often act confused and exhausted.

New York Times reporter Amy Chozick wrote that when she visited Max at his apartment in April and attempted to introduce herself, he didn’t appear to understand her.

“He just shrugged, asked me several times what year it was and then told me that he had spent his childhood in Shanghai,” Chozick said.

Have you bought a Peter Max work of art lately? Reach out to the author to share your story at [email protected]

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