“Stay In Your Limited Lane”—Basquiat Drama Erupts in Orlando

The Orlando Museum of Art recently wrapped up an exhibition of paintings they attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat, but questions surrounding their authenticity arose from day one. Earlier this week, the FBI seized all 25 works in a dramatic episode that resulted in the unceremonious ousting of museum director Aaron De Groft.

“Untitled (Self-portrait with his cowboy hat and wearing Leonardo da Vinci’s flying suit)” (1982), said to be by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Image via Orlando Museum of Art

In the early 1980s, the promising young Jean-Michel Basquiat took a studio residency in the basement of Larry Gagosian’s home in Venice Beach to prepare new artworks for an exhibition at the dealer’s L.A. gallery. During that time, Basquiat sold a set of 25 vibrant cardboard canvases without Gagosian’s knowledge to the television screenwriter Thad Mumford, who forked over a mere $5,000 for the set. The works all but disappeared for three decades, only resurfacing after Mumford’s storage unit went up for auction when they were discovered by two treasure hunters who scour small auctions for hidden gems.

That’s how the story goes according to Aaron De Groft, director of the Orlando Museum of Art, which recently presented the paintings in an exhibition that came under the magnifying glass when questions of their authenticity arose. Days before the show was scheduled to close, the FBI raided the museum and seized all 25 works. The board swiftly ousted him after trustees reported feeling “extremely concerned” on multiple fronts, including “inappropriate emails sent to academia” about authenticating the works.

De Groft reportedly sent threats to Jordana Moore Saggese, an associate professor of art at the University of Maryland whom the museum paid $60,000 to help authenticate the works. According to Saggese, the museum misrepresented her statements in order to establish the paintings as legitimate and fabricated an interview with her in the exhibition catalog. An affidavit received by the New York Times says that when Saggese requested her name be removed from the show, De Groft threatened to disclose the sum to her employer and wrote “Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

Installation view of “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford Jr. Venice Collection” at the Orlando Museum of Art. Photography by Macbeth Studios

De Groft may have insisted the works were genuine until the very end, but the prognosis suggests otherwise. Larry Gagosian finds the scenario “highly unlikely” given how closely he oversaw Basquiat’s residency, and multiple curators well-acquainted with the artist’s life work echoed his concerns. According to the affidavit, one of the artworks was painted on the back of a cardboard FedEx box bearing instructions in a typeface the company didn’t use until 1994. (Basquiat died in 1988.) It also says that in 2017, a year before Mumford’s death, he confirmed in the presence of federal agents that he never met Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s or purchased any paintings by him.

Basquiat is one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, however, authenticating his works isn’t so simple. His estate’s authentication committee was dissolved a decade ago after a lawsuit, so newly unearthed works aren’t easily verified. Basquiat is also a prime target for forgers considering that one of his paintings long held the record for the most expensive piece of American art ever sold, at $110.5 million. (It was eclipsed last month by his friend Andy Warhol, whose Shot Sage Blue Marilyn fetched $195 million.) If the canvases in question are in fact authentic, they would be worth close to $100 million.

“Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II)” (1982), said to be by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Image via Orlando Museum of Art

Art forgery, of course, is nothing new, and much more common in major institutions than one might expect. The Independent estimates that a staggering 20 percent of art in major U.K. museums isn’t attributed correctly. A 2017 exhibition of Modigliani at Genoa’s Ducal Palace closed early when nearly all the paintings on view were proven to be fake. Basquiat knock-offs have been circulating since the early ‘90s, and the FBI even arrested someone this past year for selling an artwork he falsely claimed was a collaboration between Basquiat and Keith Haring. Willfully selling art known to be fake is a federal crime in the United States.

The Orlando Museum of Art maintains it did everything it could by bringing in the leader of Basquiat’s estate authentication committee, and consulting historians, handwriting experts, and forensic professionals. “We diligently undertook a very rigorous process of research and evaluation before opening this exhibit,” the museum said in the aftermath of this week’s raid. “This is a regarded industry standard of evaluation and was followed intricately in our planning for this exhibit.” Anyway, where’s Jerry Saltz when we need him?

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