Late last week, FBI agents entered the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) and removed 25 paintings attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat, which were on display as part of a new exhibition of the late artist’s work.
As museum visitors watched, agents executed a search warrant—taking the pieces off the walls, placing them into boxes, and loading them into vehicles—because of questions about their authenticity, report the New York Times’ Brett Sokol and Matt Stevens.
The FBI is investigating two potential crimes: conspiracy and wire fraud, according to the Times. The warrant said that the FBI’s efforts have revealed “false information related to the alleged prior ownership of the paintings” and “attempts to sell the paintings using false provenance,” among other things.
“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,” says museum spokesperson Emilia Bourmas-Fry in a statement, per David Fischer of the Associated Press (AP). “We continue to see our involvement purely as a fact witness.”
No staff members have been arrested, she adds, and the museum is complying with federal agents, who have now taken possession of all pieces that appeared in the exhibition, titled “Heroes and Monsters.”
Basquiat, the acclaimed American Neo-Expressionist artist who rose to prominence in the 1980s, “drew from hip-hop, jazz, graffiti, Beat literature, pop art, folk art, comics and even Gray’s Anatomy to forge an emotionally charged style that still dazzles,” wrote Amy Crawford for Smithsonian magazine in 2017. Today, the artist’s bold, often brightly-colored paintings are worth tens of millions of dollars. But his career was cut short upon his death in 1988 at age 27.
The origin story of the 25 paintings in Orlando—as the museum has been telling it—goes like this: Basquiat painted them on cardboard in 1982 while living in California, then sold them to the screenwriter Thad Mumford for $5,000. Mumford stashed them in a storage unit for 30 years; when he fell behind on rent payments in 2012, they were auctioned off. Art dealer William Force, along with his financial backer Lee Mangan, bought them for $15,000.
But doubts about the pieces’ authenticity began swirling almost immediately after their discovery. Before his death in 2018, Mumford told the FBI that he never owned any Basquiat pieces, according to the Times. Additionally, the cardboard used in at least one of the paintings contained a FedEx typeface that the company did not begin using until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death.
“By quick visual inspection, they are immediately problematic,” Todd Levin, an art advisor, tells Artnet’s Jo Lawson-Tancred. “It’s clear to anybody who has expertise about Basquiat’s oeuvre—built up from decades of experience handling it, dealing with it, looking at it, and having known the artist—that these are, without a doubt, not by the artist.”
The museum director and the paintings’ owners have maintained that the works are genuine. If they are real, they could be worth upwards of $100 million, though Artnet noted that they’ve failed to sell on the secondary market in recent years. The owners did not respond to the Times’ interview requests about the FBI raid.
“My reputation is at stake as well,” Aaron De Groft, OMA’s director, told the Times’ Brett Sokol in February. “And I’ve absolutely no doubt these are Basquiats.”
The exhibition opened in February, and it was originally slated to run through June 2023. However, the museum later announced that it would end this summer, when it would instead travel to Italy. According to the AP, the FBI believes this change was to “avoid further scrutiny of the provenance and authenticity of the works by the public and law enforcement.”