New documents surrounding the FBI’s raid of the Orlando Museum of Art show that doubts were expressed about their troubled Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit well before it opened.
In an affidavit obtained by the New York Times, art expert Jordana Moore Saggese told investigators she was asked by OMA Director Aaron De Groft to “stay in your limited lane” after casting doubt on the paintings’ origin.
Saggese — a professor at the University of Maryland — was called in to help authenticate the paintings. The Basquiat authentification committee run by the late painter’s estate disbanded more than a decade ago, making sussing out newly uncovered paintings from counterfeits uniquely difficult. Named as Expert 2 in the FBI affidavit supporting the FBI’s search warrant of the museum, Sagesse said she was pressured to keep quiet by De Groft.
“You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this? Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.” De Groft reportedly wrote in an email after Sagesse asked for her name to be removed from the exhibit. “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”
The 25 paintings that made up the museum’s Heroes & Monsters exhibit have been a target of investigators for years. The story around the paintings says were uncovered in a storage unit owned by late screenwriter Thad Mumford. The owners claim that the paintings were made 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 Mumford told federal agents in 2014 that he had neither met Basquiat nor purchased any of his paintings. He signed a sworn statement in 2017 to that effect. Mumford added that he was pressured by the paintings’ owners to corroborate the story, in exchange for 10% of the sale price.
The FBI seized the paintings in question last Friday, which would be worth nearly $100 million dollars if authentic. Willfully selling art that is known to be counterfeit is a federal crime. OMA leadership maintains that the paintings are legitimate.