When the news broke recently that Michael Jackson had a $900 million art collection, most people probably had the same reaction: Michael Jackson had a $900 million art collection?! Furthermore, all but the most fanatical of Jackson fans were probably unaware that the late singer was himself a visual artist. (Though, to be honest, did anyone really know much of what he was up to behind the gates of his mansion/playground/amusement park/zoo?) Word of the collection, which contains many original works by the singer as well as valuable presidential memorabilia, came to light due to a legal feud surrounding the sale: At the request of his family, lawyers running the Jackson estate are attempting to block the $87.7 million sale of the art collection to an unnamed buyer by Jackson's former art mentor, who claims legal right to the trove.
Like most things surrounding the late music legend, the details are convoluted and crazy. Here, ARTINFO takes you step-by-step through everything you need to know about the Michael Jackson art collection dispute.
1. A MYSTERY INTERNATIONAL BUYER WANTS MJ'S ART
No matter how you cut it, the values being tossed around for Michael's art are huge. An unnamed international businessman has reportedly purchased the entirety of the 182-piece collection for $87.7 million. Is this credible? Yes. Back in 1990, "The Book" — reportedly the only portrait for which Jackson ever sat — sold for $2.1 million to Hiromichi Saeki Corp. Hiromichi Saeki was a Japanese merchandiser and concert promoter of Jackson's.
2. BUT HIS ART MAY BE WORTH A LOT MORE
It would seem that $87.7 million is no small chunk of change. But it dwarfs the amount that appraiser Eric Finzi, a member of the International Society of Appraisers, has said that the trove is actually worth (in an interview with Star Magazine, so caveat emptor): a staggering $902.5 million. What could justify the huge sum? "Michael's mystique in life combined with this exposure of his wonderful fine art creations following his tragic death will escalate the value of these works and the popularity of his artistic vision worldwide," Finzi said, adding, "I do not think we have begun to see the true value of this fine art yet."
3. MICHAEL HAD AN ART MENTOR
Australian artist Brett-Livingstone Strong, whom Jackson called a modern day Michelangelo, served as master to Michael's apprentice. Strong's artistic output includes creating a painting of the Sydney Opera House at the royal invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, carving John Wayne's face into a 116-ton rock that sold for $1.1 million and is now in the library of Lubbock Christian University in Lubbock, Texas, and sculpting a life-size bronze statue of John Lennon that was unveiled by Andy Warhol. Strong was commissioned by Chief Justice Warren Burger to create the National Monument to the U.S. Constitution and NASA's National Space Exploration Monument in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Strong's misty and kitschy pseudo-Renaissance portrait of Jackson, "The Book" holds the record for highest price ever garnered by a living artist for the sale of a portrait. Strong also painted a Pre-Raphaelite-esque scene of Jackson in a lily pond surrounded by bare breasted water nymphs that takes directly from John William Waterhouse's 1896 painting "Hylas and the Water Nymphs." In Strong's version, the head nymph bears the likeness of Lisa-Marie Presley.
4. THE MENTOR INHERITED ALL OF MJ'S ART
Brett-Livingstone Strong is also the seller of the dubious collection. The art was given to Strong, apparently at the request of Jackson, by Jackson's final business manager Dr. Tohme Tohme — a Lebanese financier who rescued Neverland from foreclosure in 2008 and has never revealed any details of his life or career to the press. Tohme wrote in a letter dated November 2008 to Strong: "Michael wants you to know he is truly grateful for the loyalty you have shown him over the years, and he views this as a small token of appreciation for your continued friendship and artistic partnership."
5. THE BEQUEST IS IN QUESTION
There is some serious haziness concerning the validity of the document bequeathing the art to Strong, because allegedly neither Jackson's signature nor initials appear on. And somehow, it just doesn't seem like the word of Dr. Tohme Tohme should be legally binding.
6. THE FOUNDER OF CIRQUE DE SOLEIL MAKES A CAMEO
Though the identity of the collection's ultimate purchaser is unknown, two of the under bidders are known. Billionaire Guy Laliberté, who is the founder of Cirque du Soleil and a World Poker Tour participant. The other is Howard Mann, a Toronto gambling entrepreneur and business partner to Jackson's mother Katherine. Mann is also now a driving force in attempting to stop the sale. It would appear that he is a sore loser, though the Jackson camp is claiming that allowing Strong to sell the collection is cheating Jackson's children Prince, Paris, and Blanket out of their inheritance. Is it a coincidence that the only known bidders on the Jackson collection are high stakes gamblers? Probably not.
7. AS AN ARTIST, MJ WAS INSPIRED BY AMERICA
The King of Pop created a myriad of pieces inspired by the American presidency and other historical figures, including his first work entitled "We the People," a piece executed on presidential archival paper estimated to be worth $3 million; a sketch of "The White House Doors," also said to be worth $3 million; and sketches of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington, suggested to be worth $8.1 million all together. Jackson also collected a U.S. Presidency Seal signed by Ronald Reagan and JFK's rocking chair, which was given to Jackson by, wait for it, Roy E. Disney.
8. JACKSON WAS ALSO A BURGEONING ARCHITECT
Also within the collection are elaborate designs of chairs, gates, sculptures, and doors that Jackson designed for Neverland Ranch. One such project Jackson titled "Peter Pan Magic Gate."
9. HE WAS ALSO REALLY INTO ART ABOUT HIMSELF
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Michael Jackson's favorite subjects was Michael Jackson. He created a self-portrait inscribed on a plaque that was intended to decorate the entrance to a Neverland theater. There are also sketches of his own feet doing the moonwalk that have been valued at $600,000, as well as signed sepia prints of his portrait "The Book."
10. MJ'S STUDIO IS ALSO OUT OF THIS WORLD
And where did MJ create all this art? At a secret airport hangar at Santa Monica Airport. He needed an entire hangar to draw sketches?!