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FBI Raid Art Museum Over Fake Paintings, But Staff Say Otherwise

Note: This article may contain commentary or the author's opinion.

Jean-Michael Basquiat, the neo-expressionist artist who achieved most of his fame after his death of a drug overdose in 1988, is still proving to be a sought-after painter, at least in the fake art world.

Just this past week the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided a Florida art museum during the middle of the day in front of visitors and seized multiple works that had been attributed to the tortured artist, but have since been questioned over their authenticity. The Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) had been holding an exhibit called ‘Heroes and Monsters’ which included some of the supposed Basquiat paintings but announced that they complied with an FBI warrant and relinquished possession of the artwork to the Bureau and are serving as a witness in the ongoing investigation, according to the Associated Press (AP).

The paintings in question had been found in an old storage locker in 2012, years after Basquiat’s death. While initially attributed to the New York artist, questions arose regarding their provenance due to the material used to create the pieces. In one of the supposed Basquiat paintings a FedEx typeface can be seen as part of the canvas. However, this font was not used in company advertising or its easily-identifiable boxes until 1994, six years after Basquiat died.

In addition, the owner of the storage locker, television writer Thad Mumford, told investigators before his death in 2018 that he never owned any Basquiat art, and that the pieces claimed to have been found in it had not been there the last time he visited the facility.

However, Aaron De Groft, OMA Director, insists the artwork is legitimate Basquiat. Emilia Bourmas-Fry, the OMA spokesperson, said that the exhibition’s early closing is a matter of contract negotiations and scheduling, as the art’s owners want to send the artwork to an exhibition in Italy.

But according to the FBI warrant, there is something else going on:

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“Based on my training and experience, I believe that the significantly advanced date of the international departure of the Mumford Collection from OMA is to avoid further scrutiny of the provenance and authenticity of the works by the public and law enforcement,” an FBI special agent wrote in the warrant request.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case and no museum staff members have been arrested.

The FBI has known about the existence of the artwork and has reportedly been investigating the paintings since 2012. Despite the ongoing investigation, the museum was confident enough to mount the exhibition, advertising ‘Heroes & Monsters,’ even decking out a bus to drive through Orlando to promote the artist and its corresponding show.

The Jean-Michel Basquiat website makes no mention of the Orlando exhibition, although it is unclear if it had been pulled once the FBI raided the museum.  The website does say that Basquiat’s “life and work continues to inspire discussion, influence generations of artists and art in all its forms and make history all around the world.”

Just last month a 1982 Basquiat painting sold at boutique auctioneer Phillips in New York for $85 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the most anyone has paid for a Basquiat occurred in 2017 when a Japanese buyer purchased a painting of a skull on a sky blue background for $110.5 million.

I guess some pictures are worth more than a thousand words.