The FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art on Friday, June 24 and took 25 alleged Basquiat paintings, including this work. (photo courtesy @sallyevansfineart via Instagram)

A week before the closing date of the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition Heroes and Monsters: The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection exhibition, the Federal Bureau of Investigations raided the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) and seized each of the show’s 25 artworks. According to staff accounts provided to the New York Times, more than 12 FBI agents entered the open museum on Friday, June 24 and took the paintings down from the exhibition walls and into cars waiting outside. The museum was promptly closed to visitors.

The authenticity of this Basquiat collection — which the artist purportedly sold to Hollywood screenwriter Thaddeus Mumford in 1982 — has been heavily scrutinized, and the works’ reputation has rendered the paintings unsaleable. A successful museum exhibition could have lent works credibility and perhaps helped the paintings’ owners finally secure the estimated $100 million the group was allegedly valued at. But sales did not come soon enough: The FBI’s Art Crime Team had apparently been investigating the works since shortly after they surfaced a decade ago, and last summer, the agency issued a federal subpoena to OMA for its communications with the paintings’ owners and any trustee records regarding the alleged Basquiats.

The total collection of alleged Basquiat paintings is valued at $100 million. (photo courtesy @sallyevansfineart via Instagram)

The owners’ provenance story illustrates a lucky, if unlikely, tale, but evidence in an affidavit reviewed by the NYT seems to prove the narrative almost entirely false.

According to owners William Force and Leo Mangan, they purchased the 25 paintings for $15,000 in 2012, when the contents of a foreclosed Los Angeles storage unit were put up for auction. Before 2012, there was no public mention of the 25 paintings.

That storage unit had belonged to successful Hollywood screenwriter Thaddeus Mumford, who passed away in 2018. Eventually, LA celebrity lawyer Pierce O’Donnell bought a portion of the paintings as well.

Mangan and Force claim that Basquiat sold the paintings to Mumford in 1982 for $5,000. At the time, Basquiat was living in LA and preparing work for a show at Larry Gagosian’s California gallery. Mangan said that in a 2012 meeting with Mumford, the retired screenwriter gave him a poem he typed about his 1982 purchase (it also featured Basquiat’s initials). That poem — taken as a vital piece of evidence in the paintings’ favor — was included in OMA’s exhibition.

A colleague of Mumford’s said that Mumford always wrote by hand and did not type. And now, the truth surrounding Mumford’s involvement seems even muddier. According to the affidavit, in a 2014 meeting with Mumford, FBI special agent Elizabeth Rivas learned that he did not purchase the paintings, did not know about their existence in his storage unit, and was pressured into signing documents that stated his ownership. In 2017, Mumford signed an official declaration with the FBI that read: “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.”

An earlier piece of public evidence against the paintings’ authenticity centered the FedEx box that one of the works was painted on: Lindon Leader, who redesigned FedEx’s logo and fonts in the ’90s, said that this font was not introduced until 1994, six years after Basquiat died of a drug overdose.

Some voiced support for the owners’ provenance claims. (photo courtesy @tate.ellington via Instagram)

But despite the looming body of documentation putting the paintings’ provenance into question, the works have received some support over the years. Diego Cortez, an early champion of Basquiat and a member of the Basquiat Authentication Committee, certified the works as authentic in statements made in 2018 and 2019. However, Cortez passed away last year and the committee disbanded in 2012.

And in 2017, a handwriting expert stated that the signatures on the paintings were authentic. O’Donnell also hired University of Maryland Professor Jordana Moore Saggese to give her opinion, which the owners then used to support the collection’s provenance claim. According to the affidavit, she was paid $60,000. Saggese has since stated that her findings were misrepresented and asked OMA’s director Aaron De Groft not to associate her with the exhibition, a request he denied.

Heroes and Monsters was initially supposed to be exhibited at OMA through June 2023, but the paintings’ owners decided to cut the show short. Until the FBI seized the collection, the works were slated to travel to Italy after they were de-installed from OMA.

OMA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment. A museum spokesperson told the Associated Press: “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. We continue to see our involvement purely as a fact witness.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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