The FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art on Friday and seized more than two dozen paintings attributed to acclaimed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, nearly a year after probing their authenticity.
A team of FBI agents spent several hours at the Loch Haven Park museum, just north of downtown, and left around 1:30 p.m
Visitors came to find Closed signs on the front doors. A security official said he didn’t know why the museum was closed or when it would reopen. But the television news helicopters circling overhead and the activity at the museum’s loading dock showed that all was not as usual at the nearly 100-year-old institution.
Agents carried boxes and bubble wrap into the building. They then pulled a van and another vehicle into one of the museum’s garages before driving away.
The raid came about a year after the FBI first issued a subpoena to the institution regarding its Heroes & Monsters exhibit of paintings attributed to Basquiat. If the works are legitimate, experts say they could be worth $100 million. But the art has been embroiled in controversy since shortly after the exhibition opened in February.
“Today we have honored a request from the FBI for access to the Heroes and Monsters exhibit now in their possession,” museum spokeswoman Emilia Bourmas-Fry wrote in a statement. She couldn’t provide more details about the ongoing investigation “given the sensitivities” but said the FBI had arrived with a warrant and “no one on staff is being arrested.”
“It is important to note that we have still not been led to believe that the museum was or is the subject of any investigation,” their statement said. “We continue to see our commitment only as a factual witness.”
The Heroes & Monsters exhibition was scheduled to close on June 30th. The museum was expected to reopen as usual on Saturday, Bourmas-Fry said.
Some visitors have criticized the museum’s handling of the controversy over whether the Heroes & Monsters works were actually painted by Basquiat, an art world superstar who died in 1988.
Janice Ritter Kadushin, 75, a Tampa Bay-area artist, said the museum should have done more to explain to visitors that the authenticity of the works is in question. She, her husband and friends drove from Dunedin to see the exhibition and judge for themselves.
“I don’t think they did their due diligence in this particular case,” said Kadushin, whose group had planned to spend the night in Orlando.
Gallerist and curator Patrick Greene, who has worked freelance for the museum in the past, said the board of trustees needs to be more transparent with the community about its decision-making regarding the exhibition.
“The board really needs to be looked at,” said Greene, whose latest project was an art display on billboards along I-4 and other central Florida roads. “There was no attempt to be diplomatic or to listen” to the public’s concerns.
Three members of the museum’s board of trustees declined to comment when reached earlier this week, referring questions to the museum’s public relations staff. A board member, Michael Winn, said he had been asked not to comment on the matter.
The exhibition had been touted as a coup for the museum that showed the works first. The pieces are said to have been found in an old storage cupboard owned by TV writer Thad Mumford after Basquiat died of a drug overdose aged 27.
But the New York Times reported Friday that during an interview in 2014 and in a signed statement in 2017, Mumford told the FBI he never met Basquiat or bought any art from him. The Times was able to review the FBI search warrant and accompanying affidavit. Mumford, who died in 2018, also told the FBI he was pressured by one of the artworks’ owners to sign documents saying he owned the collection, the Times report said.
The FBI investigation is looking into possible conspiracy and wire fraud, the Times reported, saying the FBI investigation “uncovered attempts to sell the paintings under false provenance.” Selling art known to be counterfeit is a federal crime.
Shortly after the opening of Heroes & Monsters, questions surfaced about the authenticity of the works, based on everything from incongruous FedEx branding on the box they were painted on to curious details in the storage cabinet’s origin story. The FBI affidavit specifically mentions FedEx labeling, the Times reported, noting that their typeface was not used until years after Basquiat’s death.
Museum director Aaron De Groft has been adamant that the art is legitimate, pointing to various manuscripts and other experts who have validated it. He is on vacation, Bourmas-Fry said, and is expected to return next week. An unnamed Basquiat expert, who lent credibility to the paintings but later said her work had been mischaracterized by the paintings’ owners, was pressured by De Groft to remain silent, according to the affidavit verified by The Times.
There is no formal way to authenticate the work, as the authentication committee led by Basquiat’s estate was dissolved in 2012.
In May, The Times reported that the FBI served a subpoena on the museum and collected museum records last July, months before the exhibit opened. On Friday, the museum spokeswoman reiterated that the museum will continue to work with the FBI and is awaiting further guidance.
The museum originally announced the exhibit would remain in Orlando through June 2023, but Bourmas-Fry said the contract only guaranteed the art would remain in Orlando through the end of the month.
The exhibition’s extension fell through, she said, after the art’s owners told the museum they planned to send the works to Italy for exhibition — plans that now seem unlikely given the art in FBI-owned possession.
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The collection of 25 paintings is owned by art dealer William Force, retired salesman Lee Mangin and Pierce O’Donnell, a high-profile Los Angeles trial attorney.
Greene said the Orlando art scene remains vibrant and is more than a single controversy in a museum.
But that was cold consolation for those who traveled specifically to see “Heroes & Monsters,” like Basquiat fan Carmen Lopez-Reimer, who traveled from Atlanta.
“I hope it’s real,” she said Friday. “What does it matter to me now? I won’t see it.”
Jennifer Belland, who was visiting from DeLand, said she doesn’t think the museum owes the public a refund if the paintings are found to be fakes but are being displayed in good faith.
“I still want to see it,” she said. “But maybe half the price.”