The museum said the FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art on Friday, taking all 25 works that were part of an exhibition on the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
An affidavit was made to secure the search warrant called the collection’s origin story, as described by the owners and the museum, in doubt, and indicated there was reason to doubt the authenticity of the artworks.
The New York Times had previously reported that the FBI’s Art Crime Task Force was investigating the authenticity of 25 paintings the museum said Basquiat had created that had been on display there for months.
A spokeswoman for the museum said Friday that it complied with an FBI request for access to the “Heroes and Monsters” exhibit, and that the exhibit is now in FBI possession.
“It is important to note that we still have not been led to believe that the museum was or is the subject of any investigation,” spokeswoman Emilia Bormas-Fry said in an emailed statement. “We still see our participation as a purely factual witness.”
The Basquiat Gallery was due to close on June 30, and the works were then scheduled to be shown in Italy. Museum officials said they will continue to cooperate with authorities.
According to museum staff, more than a dozen FBI agents arrived at the museum Friday morning. They walked through its front doors, filed an arrest warrant, and then immediately began removing 25 paintings from the museum’s walls. The museum was soon closed to the public, as curious visitors peered through the now-closed entrance and gathered outside as FBI agents packed up the paintings and moved them to parking at the museum’s loading dock.
An FBI spokeswoman confirmed that a federal search warrant had been executed Friday at the museum and said the investigation by the Art Crimes Task Force was continuing.
On Thursday, a judge signed the unsealed search warrant, which The Times reviewed. The 41-page affidavit was issued on the basis of two possible crimes: conspiracy and telephone fraud. In the documents, the FBI said it was investigating the gallery and attempted to sell 25 paintings, and said its investigation revealed, among other things, “false information regarding the alleged prior ownership of the paintings.”
Authorities also said their investigations revealed “attempts to sell the paintings using a fake source, and bank records show a potential solicitation to invest in non-original artwork.”
The museum and owners said the paintings in the exhibition “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” were retrieved from a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012. The works were largely invisible before the gallery opened in February.
The Times report published that month raised questions about its credibility. One of the artwork was noted to be painted on the back of a cardboard shipping box with instructions to “align top FedEx shipping label here,” in a typeface that the designer who worked for Federal Express said wasn’t used until 1994 — six years after Basquiat’s death.
The search warrant affidavit, signed by Elizabeth Rivas, the FBI special agent, states that “forensic information indicates that the cardboard on which one plate was made contained a typeface created in 1994, after Basquiat passed, which calls into question the At least one piece is correct.”
The owners of the paintings and the director and CEO of the Orlando Museum, Aaron de Groft, all confirmed that the works are original. No one immediately responded to a request for comment on the confiscation of the paintings.
Both De Groft and the owners said the works, executed on pieces of cardboard, were done by Basquiat in late 1982 when he was living and working in a studio below the Los Angeles home of art dealer Larry Gagosian and preparing for a show at the Gagosian Gallery. They said Basquiat sold the works for $5,000 to now-deceased TV screenwriter Thad Mumford, who put it in a storage unit and apparently forgot about it for 30 years — until the unit’s contents were confiscated for non-payment of rent and auctioned off in 2012 (Gagosian said he “finds a script The story is highly unlikely.”).
In an affidavit for the search warrant, Rivas stated that she interviewed Mumford in 2014 and learned that “Mumford had never purchased Basquiat’s artwork and was unaware of any Basquiat artwork in his storage locker.”
Mumford also told Rivas that one of the artwork owners “pressured him to sign documents” claiming he owned the collection, which would help prove the paintings’ authenticity, even offering in an email to give him a “10% interest” in 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 Jean-Michel Basquiat, and at no time did I purchase or I got no plates for him.”
The paintings were purchased for about $15,000 by William Force, an art and antiques dealer, and Leo Mangan, a retired salesman. Attorney Pierce O’Donnell later bought a stake in six of 25 businesses that employed several experts who said the works appeared to be original.
One of those particular experts, identified in the affidavit only as “Expert 2,” told the FBI that the paintings’ owners mischaracterized her work. Having paid $60,000, according to the affidavit, the expert later called the museum to request that her name not be associated with the exhibition at all. She said the museum’s director, De Groft, replied by email: “You want us to put there, you got $60,000 to write this? Well then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than you.” De Groft, who still insists the paintings are authentic, then threatened to share the details of that sum with her employer: “Do something academic and stay on your limited path.”
The Basquiat County Authentication Commission was dissolved in 2012, when several artist estates stopped trying to certify works due to costly litigation.
If the Basquiat paintings were original, they would be worth about $100 million, according to the Putnam Fine Art and Antiques Estimate, which they valued to their owners. The owners have said in previous interviews that they were trying to sell the business.
Deliberate selling of art known to be counterfeit is a federal crime.