New documents on the FBI’s raid on the Orlando Museum of Art show doubts were raised about their troubled Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit well before it opened.
In an affidavit obtained by the New York Timesart expert Jordana Moore Saggese told researchers she had been asked by OMA director Aaron De Groft to “remain in your limited orbit” after she cast doubt on the paintings’ origins.
Saggese – a professor at the University of Maryland – was brought in to authenticate the paintings. The Basquiat Authentication Commission led by the deceased painter’s estate disbanded more than a decade ago, making it uniquely difficult to distinguish newly discovered paintings from forgeries. Saggese, named Expert 2 in the FBI’s affidavit in support of the FBI’s search warrant for the museum, said she was pressured by De Groft to remain silent.
“Do you want us to get it out there, you have $60 grand to write this? Okay then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than you,” De Groft reportedly wrote in an email after Saggese had asked for her name to be removed from the exhibit: “Do your academic thing and stay in your restricted lane.”
Saggese claimed that an interview about the paintings touted by the museum was in fact completely fabricated and never took place. Her lawyers added that she never unequivocally agreed that the paintings were real.
“In February 2022 (shortly before the opening of the exhibition), Dr. Saggese heard rumors that… Dr. Aaron De Groft, the director and CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art, had falsely claimed that she had misrepresented every work in the Exhibition Attributed Exhibit to Basquiat Dr. Saggese contacted both Mr. [Peter] O’Donnell and Dr. De Groft to make sure they didn’t share the reports or misrepresent her opinion. Both denied that they did this to her,” her lawyer said Orlando Weekly† “But neither was truthful. As it turned out, Mr. O’Donnell devised an entirely fictional story featuring Dr. Saggese that spans multiple pages of the exhibition catalog. He also misleadingly quoted Dr. Saggese’s Reports to suggest that she concluded that all the OMA works were by Basquiat.”
The 25 paintings that make up the museum Heroes and Monsters exhibits have been a target of researchers for years. The story surrounding the paintings says they were discovered in a storage room owned by the late screenwriter Thad Mumford, Jr. The owners claim the paintings were created in 1982 while Basquiat was living in the home of LA-based art dealer Larry Gagosian. The paintings were reportedly sold to Mumford for $5,000.
Gagosian himself has said the story is unlikely, and according to the affidavit obtained by the… NOW, Mumford told federal agents in 2014 that he had neither met Basquiat nor bought any of his paintings. To this end, he signed an affidavit in 2017. Mumford added that he was pressured by the owners of the paintings to confirm the story, in exchange for 10% of the sale price.
The FBI seized the paintings in question last Friday, which, if authentic, would be worth nearly $100 million. Deliberately selling art known to be counterfeit is a federal crime. OMA’s leadership continues to maintain that the paintings are legitimate.
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