The leading British artist Stuart Semple, who has collaborated with Lady Gaga and whose works sell for £100,000, is facing legal action from a series of former gallery and studio assistants who claim that they have not been paid for their work.
Bailiffs have sought to seize and auction off works produced by Semple, who counts Sienna Miller and Debbie Harry among his buyers, to pay arrears which the former employees say they are owed.
Semple, described as the “Basquiat of the Noughties” after a $1 million-grossing sale of his billboard-size paintings in 2007 elevated him to “art superstar” status, has been served with court orders instructing him to pay the debts. The artist, 33, an ambassador for Mind, the mental health charity, admits he suffered cash-flow problems after the 2008 recession.
But Semple, from Poole, Dorset, denies a pattern of hiring young assistants seeking to break into the London art world, then failing to pay their wages in full.
Semple, who created a Lady Gaga feature and cover for West East Magazine, disputes the figures owed and has offered a repayment plan to at least one of the claimants.
However the dispute has turned nasty, with Semple threatening legal action against a blog written by Annie Ridout, a former assistant who claims she is owed £1,260 following her work for him at the Aubin Gallery in East London in 2012, and has won a judgment against Semple in the small claims court.
Ms Ridout said: “I was then in constant contact with the bailiff. She decided to find an exhibition he was part of and put a claim on his artwork which would be auctioned off to pay his debts.”
After obtaining figures for the artist’s annual turnover, she has rejected Semple’s offer to be paid in £20 a-month instalments and has now sent a statutory demand for payment.
The Independent understands that Chiara Scotto, former director of sales for the Aubin Gallery, claims that she is owed £5,000 in unpaid wages, expenses and commissions for contacts. Anthony Williams, a technician in the Aubin Gallery, states that he is owed £2,500 and also employed bailiffs to recover the debt after going to the small claims court. Alana Lake, who was assistant manager at the Aubin Gallery, has made a claim for more than £4,000.
They have asked Mind to reconsider Semple’s ambassadorial role.
Semple, whose exhibition Suspend Disbelief grossed £1 million, posted a reply on Ms Ridout’s blog. He wrote: “I did a massive show, sold really well and got a good response but the gallery read the contract differently to me and decided they wouldn’t pay me.” He said he offered a plan to pay Ms Ridout in full but she “turned those applications down.”
Regarding the outstanding claims, Louise Anscomb, Semple’s manager, said: “We do not believe it is appropriate to comment on individual allegations which are part of an ongoing legal dispute.”
Ms Anscomb said Semple, who once suffered a near-fatal allergic reaction, prompting his work for Mind, had health issues. He found the demands from the former employees “frightening”, she said.
Sarah Maple, an artist, who is waiting for “a significant amount” of unpaid commission, says she believes Semple suffered when he was not paid for a Hong Kong show which had a “knock-on effect with all his other projects”. Maple said: “I think someone who has the intention to screw someone over is a fraudster and I do not believe he intended this at all. I do believe I will be paid eventually,” she said.