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The Orlando Basquiats: A Year In The Making

April 14, 2023

An abstract, grafitti-like portrait showing a crowned head against a black background on a piece of cardboard

Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II), one of the Orlando Basquiat forgeries (photo: Orlando Museum of Art)

Last year, the FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA), confiscating 25 alleged forgeries of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Since then, the OMA’s board of trustees has fired its chairwoman Cynthia Brumback and the museum director Aaron de Groft, among others. Furthermore, leaked emails show that De Groft was involved in paying $60,000 to a Basquiat expert, Jordana Moore Saggese, in exchange for her attributing one of the paintings in question to Basquiat in her book. Originally, when rumors about the paintings’ authenticity went circulating, opinion among experts was pretty divided as to whether said rumors had much substance. But now, these rumors have pretty much been verified after the latest developments coming out of California.

E. Martin Estrada, the US Attorney for the Central District of California, had his office charge a Los Angeles-area auctioneer Michael Barzman with making false statements to the FBI concerning the fake Basquiat case. Barzman originally denied having anything to do with the forged paintings when he first spoke with the FBI last year. However, the jig was up for Barzman when the FBI confronted him with evidence that he had been one of the people who created the works in the first place. The cardboard used as the support for one of the paintings was from a FedEx box with Barzman’s name on the mailing label. The FedEx box was the first incongruence viewers noticed, since the box contained a company logo that FedEx would not introduce until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death. Barzman admitted to creating over two dozen works along with an unnamed accomplice. His plea agreement filed with the court says that he and his partner spent no more than half an hour on each painting, which might be incredibly embarrassing to all the Basquiat experts these forgeries fooled.

An abstract, grafitti-like painting on a piece of cardboard showing a man against a black background, a rainbow forming between his outstretched hands, and white next behind him.

Untitled (Boxer), one of the Orlando Basquiat forgeries (photo: Orlando Museum of Art)

Barzman worked as an auctioneer specializing in selling off the contents of abandoned storage units in the Los Angeles area. He and his accomplice decided to fabricate a provenance for the paintings, passing them off as the contents of television screenwriter Thad Mumford’s abandoned unit. According to Barzman, he told the eventual buyers that Mumford originally purchased the paintings from Basquiat in 1982 for $5,000. While the painting style, the signature, and the provenance fooled many experts, it seems no one at OMA ever bothered to confer with Mumford or the FBI about the matter. The FBI’s Art Crime Team has been investigating these forgeries since they first appeared in 2012 and had asked Mumford about them in 2014. The screenwriter said that he had never purchased any work by Jean Michel Basquiat, and even if he did, he did not keep them in his storage unit.

The Orlando Museum of Art has formed a task force intending to help rehabilitate the museum’s image in the eyes of both the public and donors. A statement says that the museum “has recommitted itself to its mission to provide excellence in the visual arts with its exhibitions, collections, and educational programming.”