Jean-Michel Basquiat, some say, was an artistic genius. His paintings’ auction values now equal or exceed those of his friend and mentor, Andy Warhol. A couple of top-notch Basquiat shows wowed New York City this past summer, including a major exhibition sponsored by his family members. But it was another show at the Orlando Museum of Art, “Heroes and Monsters,” that is the subject of several meticulous investigative stories by The New York Times, questioning the authenticity of the show’s 25 purported Basquiat works.
Basquiat forgeries have plagued the art world since his tragic death in 1988. The Basquiat Foundation ceased authenticating artwork in 2012 after being dragged into costly litigation concerning issues of authenticity.
I had a firsthand lesson a few years ago when asked by a dealer to assist in finding a buyer for a handful of small Basquiat paintings. I am certainly no expert on Basquiat, and prior to a buyer search I brought in an art consultant, who concluded that the works somehow looked “too perfect.” But it was the stories of their provenance that made me shy away from providing any assistance to the dealer—they were preposterous tales of acquiring the items from Basquiat for what amounted to chump change.
The provenance story for the Orlando “artworks” is even more fanciful, including a Hollywood connection. Apparently, we are to believe that Basquiat created these works—all on scavenged cardboard—in a studio below mega-dealer Larry Gagosian’s LA home in 1982 at the time he represented the artist (Gagosian has publically expressed doubts about the veracity of the story). Basquiat then allegedly sold the lot to LA television writer Thad Mumford for $5,000. Mumford (now deceased) supposedly placed the paintings in a storage locker and forgot about them for decades.
The storage unit’s contents were auctioned to two buyers for $15,000 after being seized for nonpayment of rent in 2012. Both buyers have criminal convictions for drug dealing and one of them also had a stock swindle rap in which he was accused of forgery. Well-known entertainment litigator Pierce O’Donnell also got in on the act by purchasing a share in six of the suspect paintings. O’Donnell said he brought in experts who authenticated the work, including one who wrote a book on Basquiat. However, that expert, University of Maryland art professor Jordana Saggese, told the Times nine of the works could not be authenticated.
The story of the works’ genesis would have us believe that Mumford had forgotten about a virtual goldmine in his storage unit—by 2012 Basquiats were selling in the millions at auction! None of Mumford’s friends or family ever heard him say he owned Basquiat artworks.
At least one of the “artworks” was painted on the obverse of a piece of FedEx labeled cardboard. The Times went so far as to consult with a brand expert who used to work for FedEx—and told the paper that the style of the FedEx logo on the cardboard wasn’t used by the company until 1994, six years after Basquiat died.
On June 24, 2022, the FBI raided the Orlando museum and executed a search warrant seizing all 25 of the Basquiat works.
The affidavit of FBI special agent Elizabeth Rivas, attached to the Bureau’s search warrant, is damning. Rivas said she interviewed Mumford in 2014 and was told he never purchased a Basquiat work. The Times reported, “Mumford also told Rivas that one of the artworks’ owners had ‘pressured him to sign documents’ claiming that he had owned the collection…even offering in an email to give him a ‘10 percent interest in the net proceeds.’”
Saggese is also mentioned in the FBI affidavit as having been paid $60,000 for her opinions. She said she tried to get her name disassociated from the exhibition, but was bullied by the museum’s director, Aaron De Groft, to keep quiet.
The owners claimed to have a $100 million appraisal for the Basquiats from Putnam Fine Art and Antique Appraisals. However, it looks like it may be a while before the owners are either indicted, or the FBI returns the “artwork” to them. It’s highly unlikely the suspect “artworks” will ever hang in a museum again.