FBI raids Orlando museum and removes Basquiat paintings
By Brett Sokol and Matt Stevens
The FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida late last week, taking all 25 works that had been part of an exhibition on the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the museum said.
An affidavit filed to secure the search warrant called the collection’s origin story, as it had been described by its owners and the museum, into question, and noted that there was reason to doubt the authenticity of the artworks.
The New York Times had previously reported that the FBI’s Art Crime Team had been investigating the authenticity of 25 paintings that the museum had said were created by Basquiat and were on exhibit there for months.
A spokesperson for the museum said Friday that it had complied with a request from the FBI for access to its “Heroes & Monsters” exhibit and that the exhibit was now in the FBI’s possession.
“It is important to note that we still have not been led to believe the museum has been or is the subject of any investigation,” the spokesperson, Emilia Bourmas-Fry, said in an emailed statement. “We continue to see our involvement purely as a fact witness.”
The Basquiat exhibit had been set to close Thursday, and the works were scheduled to be exhibited next in Italy. Museum officials said they would continue to cooperate with authorities.
According to museum employees, more than a dozen FBI agents arrived at the museum Friday morning. They walked through its front doors, presented a warrant and then promptly began removing the 25 paintings from the museum’s walls.
The museum was quickly closed to the public, as curious visitors peered through the now-locked entrance and gathered outside. FBI agents boxed up the paintings and moved them into waiting vehicles at the museum’s loading dock.
A spokesperson for the FBI confirmed that a federal search warrant had been executed Friday at the museum and said that the investigation by the Art Crime Team was ongoing.
The unsealed search warrant, which the Times reviewed, was signed by a judge Thursday. The 41-page affidavit was issued on the basis that two possible crimes may have occurred: conspiracy and wire fraud. In the documents, the FBI said it was investigating the exhibition and attempted sale of 25 paintings, and said its investigation had revealed, among other things, “false information related to the alleged prior ownership of the paintings.”
Authorities also said that their investigation had revealed “attempts to sell the paintings using false provenance, and bank records show possible solicitation of investment in artwork that is not authentic.”
The paintings in the “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” exhibition were said by the museum and their owners to have been recovered from a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012. The works were largely unseen before the show’s February opening.
A Times report published that month raised questions about their authenticity. It noted that one of the artworks was painted on the back of a cardboard shipping box bearing an instruction to “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here,” in a typeface that a designer who worked for FedEx said was not used until 1994 — six years after Basquiat’s death.
The affidavit for the search warrant, which was signed by Elizabeth Rivas, a special agent for the FBI, notes, “Forensic information indicates that the cardboard on which one painting was made contains a typeface that was created in 1994, after Basquiat had passed, thereby calling into question the authenticity of at least one piece.”
The owners of the paintings, and the Orlando museum’s director and CEO, Aaron De Groft, have all maintained that the works are genuine. None immediately returned a request for comment about the seizure of the paintings.
De Groft and the owners have said that the works, done on pieces of scavenged cardboard, were done by Basquiat in late 1982 when he was living and working out of a studio beneath the Los Angeles home of art dealer Larry Gagosian and preparing for a show at Gagosian’s gallery. They said Basquiat sold the works for $5,000 to a now-deceased television screenwriter, Thad Mumford, who put them into a storage unit and apparently forgot about them for 30 years — until the unit’s contents were seized for nonpayment of rent and auctioned off in 2012. (Gagosian has said he “finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely.”)
In the affidavit for the search warrant, Rivas stated that she interviewed Mumford in 2014 and learned that “Mumford never purchased Basquiat artwork and was unaware of any Basquiat artwork being in his storage locker.”
Mumford also told Rivas that one of the artworks’ owners had “pressured him to sign documents” saying that he had owned the collection, which would help establish the paintings’ authenticity, even offering in an email to give him a “10% interest in the net proceeds.”
The affidavit says that in 2017, a year before his death, Mumford signed a declaration in the presence of federal agents stating that “at no time in the 1980s or at any other time did I meet with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and at no time did I acquire or purchase any paintings by him.”
The paintings were bought for about $15,000 by William Force, an art and antiques dealer, and Leo Mangan, a retired salesman. Pierce O’Donnell, a lawyer, later bought an interest in six of the 25 works and hired several experts who said that the works appeared genuine.
One of those hired experts, who was identified in the affidavit only as “Expert-2,” told the FBI that her work had been mischaracterized by the paintings’ owners. An associate professor of art at the University of Maryland, Jordana Moore Saggese, confirmed in an email that she was “Expert-2.” After being paid $60,000 for her work, the affidavit notes, Saggese later contacted the museum to ask that her name not be associated at all with the exhibition. The affidavit said that the museum’s director, De Groft, had replied to her via email: “You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this? OK then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.” De Groft, still insisting the paintings were genuine, then threatened to share the details of that payment with her employer: “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”