About a month ago, I wrote about allegations surrounding a collection of Basquiat paintings housed at the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA). The FBI sent agents to the museum last month to investigate claims that scores of alleged Basquiat paintings were complete forgeries. Experts at the time were divided over the issue, with the museum director Aaron de Groft asserting their authenticity. It seems like De Groft is losing ground since the FBI raided OMA on June 24th and confiscated twenty-five museum pieces. If genuine, the Basquiat collection would be worth around $100 million, according to Putnam Fine Art & Antique Appraisals.
The museum erased all material about their planned Basquiat exhibition, Heroes & Monsters, from their website. Furthermore, two days after the raid, the museum board of trustees removed De Groft from his position as museum director. It was especially damning when someone leaked an email between De Groft and a Basquiat expert, Jordana Moore Saggese. Professor Saggese previously authenticated the works in her book Reading Basquiat, but the email revealed why she previously gave a positive attribution to these forgeries. When Saggese wrote to De Groft asking to break off her involvement with the exhibition, De Groft admitted to paying her for her attribution and further pressured her into acquiescing: “You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this? Ok then. Shut up. […] Be quiet now is my best advice. These are real and legit. You know this. You are threatening the wrong people. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.” It’s not illegal or out of line to charge a fee for an expert’s authentication. But forking over a sum of money enough to buy a new Mercedes E-Class just for a simple attribution in a book seems like De Groft was desperate for more experts to back him up. It’s unknown whether his decades of experience as an art historian gave him an extra dose of pride or if he wanted to cover his tracks after realizing his mistake.
So far, no charges have been filed, and museum officials have ensured complete cooperation with the FBI. According to the FBI, the federal government has investigated this particular collection because not long after it was discovered in a Los Angeles storage unit auction nearly a decade ago. Investigators may have been tipped off since some of the owners of the alleged Basquiats, including the art dealer William Force and the trial lawyer Pierce O’Donnell, have been previously involved in some suspicious art deals. In 2014, Force and salesman Leo Mangan were sued for selling forged works allegedly by Jackson Pollock. Two years later, O’Donnell represented himself in a lawsuit over another Pollock fake.
I’d let the FBI conclude their investigation before any finger-pointing happens… but it’s difficult not to point fingers at the paintings’ owners and Aaron de Groft. With the works in the FBI’s custody, the federal investigation will likely yield some fruit soon enough.