The Federal Bureau of Investigations is looking into the authenticity of 25 works purported to be by Jean-Michel Basquiat that are on view at the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) in Florida. According to reporting by the New York Times, the FBI’s Art crime unit has issued a federal subpoena.
The exhibition Heroes and Monsters: The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection at the OMA comprises paintings attributed to Basquiat that had not been publicly displayed before the show’s February opening.
The paintings were reportedly found in 2012 in the Los Angeles storage unit of Thaddeus Mumford, a Hollywood screenwriter, after Mumford failed to pay his bill. Apparently, storage unit treasure hunters William Force and Lee Mangin purchased the paintings for $15,000. The works, if real, would carry a price tag of approximately $100 million, according to an assessment by Putnam Fine Art and Antique Appraisals.
Force and Mangin have both assumed alternate identities in the past and served prison time under those names. Before the pair got hold of the purported Basquiats, there was no public mention of the paintings.
Basquiat allegedly created the paintings in 1982 when he was living in dealer Larry Gagosian’s Los Angeles home. He sold the works to Mumford for $5,000 without Gagosian’s knowledge, even though he was supposed to be painting works for an upcoming show at Gagosian’s LA gallery.
According to the story, Mumford held the paintings in the storage unit for the next 30 years. He passed away in 2018 and never made any public statements about the works.
The New York Times reported in February that a former FedEx worker recognized the font on the back of the cardboard one work was painted on. The worker, who designed logos for the company, stated that this font was not used by FedEx until 1994, 10 years after the works were allegedly created and six years after Basquiat died of a heroin overdose.
The works were authenticated by their current owners. They cited as evidence a 1982 poem in which Basquiat references “Dr. Thad” and “25 paintings bringing riches.” Thaddeus Mumford was one of Hollywood’s first Black screenwriters, whose credits include the television shows M*A*S*H and Home Improvement.
Mangin says Mumford gave him the letter over lunch after he’d bought the paintings from the storage unit.
Diego Cortez of Basquiat’s official authentication committee certified the paintings as authentic in a 2018–2019 statement, but Cortez passed away last July and the committee stopped issuing certificates of authenticity in 2012 for fear of expensive lawsuits from displeased owners (a similar committee for the work of Andy Warhol also shut down). In 2017, a handwriting expert certified Basquiat’s signature. That same year, the paintings’ owners paid a University of Maryland art professor to certify the paintings’ authenticity as well, and have pointed to her findings as evidence in their favor. The professor has since stated that the owners removed the part of her findings that stated the works were not done by Basquiat.
Other art world professionals have cast doubt over the works, and Force and Manchin have been unable to sell the 25 paintings. Just last week, a Palm Beach dealer was charged with selling fake Basquiats.
OMA Director Aaron De Groft secured the works for exhibition after LA lawyer Pierce O’Donnell, who purchased partial ownership of the works, made public mention of them. O’Donnell has represented a long list of celebrity clients and made headlines in 2016 for representing himself in a case about an allegedly fake Jackson Pollock painting. A decade earlier, he served a nearly two-month prison sentence for breaking campaign finance laws.
OMA’s De Groft has adamantly stood by the works. In February, he told the New York Times: “My reputation is at stake as well. And I’ve absolutely no doubt these are Basquiats.”
The local Orlando Weekly and the New York Times both received reports that museum employees had been instructed not to talk about the paintings.
A museum spokesperson told Hyperallergic that it complied with a request for information from the FBI last year.
“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,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
The FBI told Hyperallergic in an email that the agency can neither confirm nor deny the existence of investigations.
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