New documents surrounding the FBI raid on the Orlando Museum of Art show doubts were cast about their troubled Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit long before it opened.
In an affidavit obtained by the New York Timesart expert Jordana Moore Saggese told investigators that OMA director Aaron De Groft asked her to “stay within your limited lane” after questioning the origin of the paintings.
Saggese – a professor at the University of Maryland – was called in to help authenticate the paintings. The Basquiat Authentication Committee headed by the late painter’s estate disbanded more than a decade ago, making it particularly difficult to detect newly discovered paintings from counterfeits. Named Expert 2 in the FBI affidavit supporting the FBI museum search warrant, Saggese said she was forced to remain silent by De Groft.
“You want us to put in there, you have $60,000 to write this? Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than you,” De Groft allegedly wrote in an email. -mail after Saggese requested that his name be removed. from the exhibit “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”
Saggese alleged that an interview about the paintings the museum was touting was in fact entirely fabricated and never took place. Her lawyers added that she never unequivocally agreed that the paintings were genuine.
“In February 2022 (shortly before the exhibition opened), Dr. Saggese heard rumors that…Dr. Aaron De Groft, director and CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art, had falsely claimed that she attributed each work from the Piece to Basquiat. Dr. Saggese contacted both Mr. [Peter] O’Donnell and Dr. De Groft to ensure they did not share the reports or misrepresent his opinions. Both denied doing so,” his lawyer told Orlando Weekly. “Yet neither were true. As it turned out, Mr. O’Donnell made up an entirely fictitious account with Dr. Saggese which spans several pages of the catalog of the exhibition. He also misleadingly cited Dr. Saggese’s reports to suggest that she had concluded that all of the works at the OMA were by Basquiat.”
The 25 paintings that made up the museum heroes and monsters exposure have been the target of investigators for years. The story around the paintings says they were discovered in a storage unit belonging to the late screenwriter Thad Mumford, Jr. The owners claim the paintings were made in 1982 when Basquiat was living in the art dealer’s house Los Angeles-based Larry Gagosian. The paintings were reportedly sold to Mumford for $5,000.
Gagosian himself said the story was unlikely, and according to the affidavit obtained by the NYT, Mumford told federal agents in 2014 that he had neither met Basquiat nor purchased any of his paintings. He signed an affidavit in 2017 to that effect. Mumford added that he was pressured by the owners of the paintings to corroborate the story, in return for 10% of the sale price.
The FBI seized the paintings in question last Friday, which would be worth nearly $100 million if genuine. Deliberately selling art known to be infringing is a federal crime. OMA management continues to maintain that the paintings are legitimate.
Stay up to date with Central Florida news and views through our weekly newsletters and consider supporting this free publication. Our small but mighty team works tirelessly to bring you news from Central Florida, and every little bit counts.