The F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team is investigating the authenticity of 25 paintings unveiled at the Orlando Museum of Art in February as long-lost creations of Jean-Michel Basquiat, per a federal subpoena obtained by the New York Times. The museum’s director and chief executive, Aaron De Groft, said the mysterious trove resurfaced in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012; they’re currently on view in the museum’s exhibition “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat”.
The Times previously reported in February that numerous questions were raised about the authorship of the works—mixed media painted on cardboard—after their debut. Notably, a brand expert told the Times that the FedEx typeface featured on a piece of cardboard purported to have been painted on by Basquiat was not in use by the company until 1994, six years after the artist’s death. De Groft has maintained that the paintings are Basquiat originals, citing expert testimony. The chairwoman of the museum’s board, Cynthia Brumback, has publicly supported De Groft’s claims. The paintings were set to travel to Italy for exhibition on June 30.
In the federal subpoena to the Orlando Museum of Art, the F.B.I. has, according to the Times, demanded “any and all” communication between the institution’s employees and the owners of the paintings “purported to be by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.” This includes correspondences between experts consulted about the artworks, as well as the OMA’s board of trustee records on the matter. The scope and specific target of the F.B.I. investigation is currently unclear. The Times reported that interviews conducted by the agents have focused on the painting’s primary owners who have stated that they intended to sell the collection.
In a statement to ARTnews, the OMA said: “Last year, the Museum complied with a request for information. The Museum has never been led to believe it was or is the subject of any investigation and has never had any FBI activity on-site. We see our involvement purely as a fact witness. As we close the Heroes and Monsters exhibition in a few weeks, we will continue to cooperate should there ever be any future requests.”
Brumback told the Orlando Sentinel in March that though “we know questions have been raised about the exhibit,” museum visitors have had a positive reaction to the paintings. “Attendance is up, diversity is up, shop sales are up,” she said. “People are enjoying themselves, which is very important to us. It supports our mission.”
According to the OMA, the exhibit’s pieces—ranging in size from a 10- inch square to a five-foot-high slab featuring a disembodied head—were created by Basquiat in 1982 while the artist was living and working out of studio beneath Larry Gagosian’s Los Angeles home. Basquiat reportedly sold the works directly to television screenwriter Thad Mumford for $5,000 in cash without the knowledge of his art dealer. Gagosian, in a statement to the Times, said the scenario of their creation sounded “highly unlikely.”
The works reappeared 25 years later when Mumford failed to pay the bill on his Los Angeles storage unit and its contents went to auction. The collection of paintings was bought by art and antiquities dealer William Force and his financier, Lee Mangin, for around $15,000. An interest in six of the 25 paintings was purchased by Los Angeles trial lawyer Pierce O’Donnell. The owners later commissioned reports by multiple Basquiat experts and a handwriting expert, several of which determined the works to be genuine.
The museum has cited these reports in its defense of their legitimacy, as well as a poem written by Mumford in 1982 in homage to their creation; it includes the line “25 paintings bringing riches.”
Prior to his death in 1988 at the age of 27, Basquiat created some 600 paintings and 1,500 drawings, according to the Brooklyn Museum. His market shows little sign of slowing: In 2017, he became the most expensive American artist ever sold at auction when an untitled skull painting from 1982 was bought for $110.5 million with fees at Sotheby’s, smashing the record Basquiat achieved a year before when a red skull went for $57.3 million.
If the Mumford trove is legitimate, their collective worth could reach $100 million.
The artist’s estate, however, disbanded its authentication committee in 2012, three months after the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, citing the costs of defending itself against lawsuits related to authentication, dissolved its own authentication entity.
Well-executed fake Basquiats, carrying elaborate forged provenance materials, have been in circulation for decades. In July 2021, the FBI arrested a man in New York City for allegedly attempting to sell forgeries of work by Basquiat and Keith Haring, among other artists, as genuine. And last week, federal agents charged Daniel Elie Bouaziz, a Palm Beach-based art dealer, with wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering for selling allegedly fake works by world-famous artists, including Basquiat, Warhol, and Keith Haring, for millions of dollars.
The most expensive work featured in the alleged scheme was an unnamed painting supposedly by Basquiat that agents claim Bouaziz bought on the website LiveAuctioneers for $495. He later sold it to an undercover agent for $12 million, according to the complaint.