Six years ago, when Derek Fordjour was a little-known art student at Hunter College, before Michael Ovitz and Beyoncé began collecting his work, before his paintings came to sell for more than $100,000, the fledgling artist struck a deal with a New York gallery.
He agreed, according to a lawsuit now being pursued in New York Supreme Court, to produce 20 works for $20,000.
The Robert Blumenthal Gallery is suing him now, saying he still owes the gallery seven of those pieces, and — as ample evidence of the surging popularity of Mr. Fordjour’s art — says it will accept no less than $1.45 million in their stead.
“Let me reiterate that the Robert Blumenthal Gallery was a supporter of Derek Fordjour for years, long before anyone else paid him any serious attention,” the dealer’s lawyer, Mark Seidenfeld, said in a statement.
Mr. Fordjour’s position is quite different, both in small matters — he says he turned over 15 works, not 13 — and large: He says he never promised to sell 20 works to the gallery, only that he offered the gallery the opportunity to sell them, and share in the profits.
As the suit once again makes clear, for all the grace and elegance of its product, the art world can be a bare-knuckled place, one filled with all sorts of disputes born of its hefty price tags, unwritten codes and handshake agreements.
On its face, this dispute centers on a technical legal question about whether a 2014 email from Mr. Fordjour to Mr. Blumenthal that outlined the terms of their arrangement constituted a strict sales contract or a different kind of deal, called a consignment agreement.
But it’s also a fight that extends beyond money to touch on the undercurrents of pride, friendship and hurt feelings that can arise over the question of who deserves to take credit for — and profit from — an artist’s success.
In his lawsuit and public statements, Mr. Blumenthal has portrayed Mr. Fordjour as an ungrateful man, one who is now tasting the fruits of recognition and betraying a mentor who took a risk on an aspiring talent.
Mr. Fordjour, on the other hand, says that while he is thankful for the help of many people, his success is a product of his own long labors and studies. He depicts Mr. Blumenthal as someone who stepped in when he was vulnerable and is now trying to exploit the situation.
In a motion to dismiss the suit this month, Mr. Fordjour’s lawyer, Maaren Shah, wrote: “Yet at the end of the day, whether he will admit it or not, the only person who can claim credit for Derek Fordjour’s success is Derek Fordjour.”
Mr. Fordjour, a Harvard graduate from Memphis and the son of Ghanaian immigrants, is known as an interdisciplinary artist whose colorful works often include references to issues of African-American identity. In 2014, at 39, he was a pursuing an M.F.A. in painting at Hunter when Mr. Blumenthal visited his studio, according to the legal documents.
Mr. Blumenthal, whose gallery featured emerging artists, says in his lawsuit that at that time Mr. Fordjour had only sold a few works, at prices of around $2,000. Shortly after, they discussed Mr. Fordjour’s creating 15 paintings and five works on paper.
“As discussed, for the sum of 20k I commit 20 works,” Mr. Fordjour wrote in the agreement he emailed to the dealer, saying he would have them ready by the time of the Art Basel Miami art fair about six months later. “I deeply appreciate your enthusiasm and support for my work,” he wrote.
Mr. Blumenthal argues in his suit and in interviews that over the next few years, he introduced Mr. Fordjour to curators and collectors, lent him money, got his work into a Sotheby’s sale promoted by the musician Drake, and in 2015 put on an installation show of the artist’s immersive work at his Madison Avenue gallery. “I invested in his career and bought works at a time when he really needed support and encouragement,” Mr. Blumenthal, 39, said in a statement.
Since then, Mr. Fordjour has flourished. Now 45, he is widely recognized as a major talent whose work has been heralded by collectors and by institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art. His composition “Half Mast” at the Whitney was a billboard mural that the museum said reflected “the current national reckoning with mass shootings.” He now has representation from three large galleries in New York, London and Los Angeles.
Mr. Blumenthal said in an interview that his relationship with Mr. Fordjour was more than artist and dealer, that it was one of friendship and moral support in which he said he had a large role in pushing the artist to be ambitious, though the artistic talent was Mr. Fordjour’s alone.
“We spoke constantly,” he said.
He contends their email exchange formalized a strict agreement to sell the 20 works and that his view is bolstered by text messages they shared in which he said Mr. Fordjour acknowledged that the paintings had been sold to him, not consigned.
“The 2014 agreement which was written up by Fordjour,” Mr. Blumenthal’s lawyer, Mr. Seidenfeld, said in a statement “and agreed to by our client, was a sale agreement which Fordjour confirmed, in writing, many times after the fact. I cannot begin to tell you how saddened Robert Blumenthal is by Derek’s absolute failure of character.”
Mr. Fordjour declined to be interviewed but in his court papers and statements he suggests Mr. Blumenthal exaggerated the significance of his influence. His court filings said he had already been gaining wider recognition, recording higher prices and working with other gallerists and that he had other shows planned at the time of the agreement.
“Robert Blumenthal is part of my story,” Mr. Fordjour said in a statement, “but any success I enjoy today is the result of a great many people offering various forms of support.”
In his court papers, the artist said he was canceling the agreement with Mr. Blumenthal, which consisted, the papers state, of only a promise to consign work to the gallery for sale to others. He argues that the $20,000 he received was an advance on the future sales and he has demanded that Mr. Blumenthal return the works still not sold or any money he made from them.
(The gallery would not disclose how many have been sold or at what price.)
“Success often breeds resentment,” Mr. Fordjour’s lawyer, Ms. Shah, wrote in the filing, “and there is usually someone who believes they have received less credit than they deserve. In this case, that someone is Robert Blumenthal.”
The key question for the court will be what to make of the email from 2014. Mr. Fordjour’s filing argues that a section of the New York state law assumes that a contract between dealer and artist is a consignment agreement unless clearly stated otherwise.
But Ted Poretz, an art law attorney at Zukerman Gore Brandeis & Crossman, who has litigated this section of the law, said the court would be likely to look at whether the email contains language typical of a consignment agreement. “Where is the language that shows the art is going to be sold on commission, as the statute requires, or where the works will be exhibited?” he said.
The larger question, of what sort of credit gallerists deserve for the ascension of the artists they champion, may well remain unanswered by the court.
“How do you get success?” said Mr. Poretz. “Is it timing, luck, skill, and how does a good gallerist shape an artist’s career? How do you break through? That’s an interesting story.”