May 31, 2022 - News

FBI investigates Basquiat paintings in Orlando Museum of Art show

Two women hold up a large painting of a creature with horns
Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Cabra." Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

Were the 25 paintings hanging in the Orlando Museum of Art really made by Jean-Michel Basquiat in a California studio in 1982, or are they part of an elaborate scheme to make a few people very rich?

What's happening: The FBI's Art Crime Team is investigating the authenticity of 25 paintings allegedly created by Basquiat and displayed at the Orlando Museum of Art, the New York Times reported over the weekend.

  • FBI Special Agents have interviewed the museum's director and subpoenaed "any and all" communications between the museum and the owners of the paintings.

Driving the news: In a Feb. 16 story, the New York Times first raised questions about the authenticity of paintings in the Orlando show "Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Thaddeus Mumford Jr. Venice Collection," which boasted 25 Basquiat paintings on cardboard said to have been "lost" for 30 years in a storage unit in California.

  • Per the museum, a "picker" bought the contents of the storage unit for $15,000 at an auction and found the paintings along with sports and television memorabilia.
  • In 2012, the picker reportedly tracked down the unit's renter, the now-deceased television writer Thad Mumford. The picker said Mumford confirmed that he bought the Basquiat paintings in 1982 on the recommendation of a friend, and he produced a copy of a poem he wrote about the sale that he asked Basquiat to initial β€” and which mentions "25 paintings bringing riches."

Yes, but: The back of one of the paintings contains a FedEx imprint, and a brand expert told the Times that specific font wasn't used until 1994, six years after Basquiat's death.

Of note: Before his death in 1988 from a drug overdose, Basquiat is believed to have made approximately 2,100 pieces of art.

  • A 1982 Basquiat painting of a horned devil sold for $85 million with fees two weeks ago, the third-highest price paid for a Basquiat work.
  • The owners of the 25 suspect paintings have made known they're for sale, and the Orlando show was the first they've been on public display.

What they're saying: "My reputation is at stake as well," Aaron De Groft, director of the Orlando Museum of Art, told the Times. "And I've absolutely no doubt these are Basquiats."

The bottom line: The intentional sale of art known to be fake is a federal crime.

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