Fake Basquiat Paintings at the Orlando Museum of Art
January 16, 2023 10:48 AM   Subscribe

In February 2022, 25 newly-discovered Basquiat paintings went on exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art NYT Link | archive.org link. The authenticity of the paintings was almost immediately called into question, due to their irregular provenance, discrepancies in style, and anachronisms in materials.

The owners say that the paintings were sold by Basquiat to Thad Mumford, a television writer, for $5000 in 1982. Mumford put them in his storage unit and forgot about them. Then in 2012, the storage unit's contents were sold off for non-payment, and purchased by William Force and Lee Mangin (same source as above paragraph).

The FBI art crime's unit was investigating the paintings as early as May 2021 NYT link | archive.org link. The museum director, Aaron De Groft, says the paintings are authentic. An FBI search warrant points toward "false information related to the alleged prior ownership of the paintings” as the basis for seizing all 25 paintings on May 28, 2022. The warrant also alleges a conspiracy to comment fraud by creating false provenance of the artworks in advance of a potential sale.

After the raid, director Aaron De Groft was fired. Five of the 30 people on the museum's board of trustees were discussing requesting the resignation of the board's chair, Cynthia Brumback, when they were dismissed from the board on the basis that they had overstayed their 9-year terms, a previously overlooked rule in the museum's bylaws. Hours after announcing the departure of the 5 trustees, the museum announced that the interim director, Luder Whitlock, had resigned. NYT link | Archive.org link.

The dismissed trustees say that the chair withheld information about the FBI investigation from the board Artnews link | archive.org link.

De Groft was the director from January 2021 until the raid. Luder Whitlock had been the interim director before De Groft was hired, and was re-hired as the interim director after De Groft was fired. Luder was back in the interim director role for a week before resigning Orlando Weekly link | archive.org link.

And what about the artworks themselves?

Basquiat's rise in popularity coincided with the acceleration of the art market. In 2017, an untitled Basquiat painting of a skull sold at auction for $110.5 million, the highest price a painting by an American had ever gone for NYT link | archive.org link. This was surpassed in May 2022, when an Andy Warhol painting sold for $195 million. NYT link | archive.org link. The most recent Basquiat to sell went for $85 million in May 2022NYT link | archive.org link.

With his rise in popularity and with the high prices his paintings are bringing, the pressure to authenticate his art as genuine is intense. In 2012, the Basquiat estate's authentication committee was dissolved due to rising legal costs associated with defending its authentication decisions. Art News link | Archive.org link.

Without an authentication committee to turn to, interested parties must turn to other expert sources for authentication. Dr. Jordana Saggese is a Professor of Art History at the University of Maryland who has researched Basquiat and published extensively about his work. UMD bio link | archive.org. In 2017, she was contracted by the owners of the 25 paintings, William Force and Lee Mangin, to consult on the works. In two private reports, Saggese rejected the authenticity of 9 of the works. She said 11 of the works might be authentic, but that would require an in-person inspection to be sure. Her consulting agreement and her reports carried the caveat that they could not be used for authentication, and could not be shared with a third party. Orlando Weekly link | archive.org link.

Force and Mangin shared the reports with a third party, the Orlando Museum of Art. De Groft relied on them to authenticate the paintings. Orlando Weekly Link | archive.org link. The museum quoted Sarggese's reports and a fictional interview with her extensively in the museum catalog.

The 25 artworks are painted on reused, salvaged cardboard, something Basquiat did frequently. However, one of the artworks was created on a FedEx box with a line of text that a FedEx brand expert says is in a font that wasn't used by FedEx until 1994, well after Basquiat's death. Independent link. Also this detail is mentioned in many of the articles above.

There is so much more to this story, including the fact that two of the current owners of these paintings Lee Mangin and William Force both have been convicted of fraud in the past, and a third owner is divorce lawyer Pierce O’Donnell, who represented Amber Heard in her divorce from Johnny Depp. The person the paintings originally were sold to was a writer for the TV show M*A*S*H. Someone really needs to write a book about this.

Previously (February 2022).

(In the paragraph about the sales of the Basquiat and Warhol paintings, all the sales discussed were for sales at auction. The highest-value private sale of a painting by an American is Interchange by Willem de Kooning, which was sold for $300 million in 2015. Wikipedia link.)
posted by OrangeDisk (26 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The museum director invented a fake interview with an art exhibit and then used quotes from the interview in the exhibit in support of the pieces?

I had read a bit about this story but that's wild. Even if you get over-excited about a potential discovery, how does that curdle inside of you to that extent that you're defrauding the public with fake expert support for your claims?
posted by lewedswiver at 10:58 AM on January 16, 2023 [6 favorites]

Someone really needs to write a book about this.

paging Clifford Irving

this is fascinating stuff, and the art market is disgusting. the artists almost never lived to see any real wealth from their works and now 'wheeler dealers' are trading points and committing fraud for $$$.
posted by supermedusa at 10:59 AM on January 16, 2023

And the money isn't real money, either, it's all laundered funds from organized crime and oligopolists. There's nothing good about the big money art world, nothing at all.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:04 AM on January 16, 2023 [18 favorites]

"...how does that curdle inside of you to that extent that you're defrauding the public with fake expert support for your claims?"

I think the cryptocurrency boom has given us a strong lens through which to view the art market. Bunch of people desperately colluding to try to convince us that something has value, instantly turning on anyone who's exposed as a fraud, but trying like hell to keep the facade that those who haven't yet been exposed aren't fraudulent. Making up bizarre stories and provenances and rituals to try to convince us that the ability to apply multiple slurp juices to this particular ape, or that so and so's hand actually touched this discarded shipping box, gives this particular concept extra value...

And in the end, yeah, it's all money laundering, organized crime, and fraud. And a few people desperately trying to prop up a particular set of problematic cultural memes.
posted by straw at 11:18 AM on January 16, 2023 [8 favorites]

Nobody seems to have asked the all-important question: what does John Lurie think?
posted by staggernation at 11:30 AM on January 16, 2023 [4 favorites]

Paging Orson Welles.
posted by doctornemo at 12:07 PM on January 16, 2023 [7 favorites]

I have no comment other than this is a fascinating story and a very well put together post.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:10 PM on January 16, 2023 [16 favorites]

I've got a certified, sealed copy of the 1987 film "Nukie" which is valued at ~$80,000. I'm looking to sell. Anyone interested?

Being serious: I swear I read about the wrong font on the FedEx box issue several years ago. Maybe I'm misremembering but it really rings a bell.
posted by SoberHighland at 12:10 PM on January 16, 2023 [6 favorites]

Amid stories that a Republican Congressman is starting to look like a Russian intelligence asset, that Moderna is jacking up the price of its mRNA COVID vaccine (developed at public expense, and given a guaranteed market for 2 years also at public expense) by some 500%, that communities in Arizona are finding themselves cut off from water supplies, that floods and landslides are wiping out other communities in California, and so on and so on, TFA describes something that seems refreshingly inconsequential.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 12:13 PM on January 16, 2023 [6 favorites]

And in the end, yeah, it's all money laundering, organized crime, and fraud.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”
-Hunter S Thompson
posted by mmrtnt at 12:29 PM on January 16, 2023 [15 favorites]

I don’t understand how anyone ever thought they were real. They’re such obvious fakes even from a distance in online photos. The hand is so stilted and flat. I may not love Basquiat’s work, but he was anything but stiff in the way he made marks. He was quick and decisive in the way he painted and if something didn’t work he painted it out. The person who made these is obviously working slowly and the areas they daubed on flat color are random and just wrong for his work. Also the colors in some of these are so far off colors he used.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 12:47 PM on January 16, 2023 [7 favorites]

This may be the art world's version of the bank robber's wisdom, "If you're gonna steal something, steal something big." It's quite possible that most or all of the 25 Basquiats are fakes, because the fraudsters may have believed that the more big and brazen the scale of the fraud, the more likely people are to disbelieve that fraud is actually going on. L'affaire Basquiat reminds me of how the forger Han van Meegeren painted almost 50 fake Vermeers, enough to create an entirely false historical narrative about Vermeer before the fraud was discovered. To give you an idea of how ballsy that is, there are only 34 paintings definitely attributed to Jan Vermeer now. Because of van Meegeren, a majority of the paintings that people before World War II thought were Vermeer were actually fakes. The fraud only got discovered because van Meegeren was threatened with the death penalty for selling Dutch cultural treasures to the Nazis. Before van Meegeren was discovered, the inevitable differences between van Meegeren's pseudo-Vermeer style and Vermeer's style could be shrugged off as evidence of the artist's "evolution." Van Meegeren was only able to do this because he painted dozens of fake Vermeers, instead of just one or two. Maybe we have some Basquiat fraudsters who had the same idea.
posted by jonp72 at 3:04 PM on January 16, 2023 [10 favorites]

One thing you can be sure of is that there is no shortage of artists who think they can paint like Basquiat. Most of them seem to want to be the “next Basquait” but I’m sure there are some who would be happy to just profit from making fakes.
posted by jimw at 3:38 PM on January 16, 2023 [3 favorites]

The archive links aren't downloading the images of the paintings in question for me so I can't comment on that.
All of this is so dreary; in this version of the art world money is the only thing that matters. Money has always played a hugely important role in the various iterations of the art world but not the sole role like it does in what perhaps can be referred to as the Crypto Art World, where obscene amounts of money are spent on dubious acquisitions which are then placed in safe, duty free locations never to be seen again.
I find the older I get the more I like Basquiat's work; there is an energy, a freshness, that age has not dulled in the slightest.
And, the record for the most expensive piece of American art ever sold was de Kooning's Interchange(1955), sold for 300 million in a private sale in 2015. De Kooning made 2000$ when it was sold by his gallery in 1955.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 5:10 PM on January 16, 2023 [3 favorites]

@Phlegmco(to) I'm sorry for getting the detail about the most expensive piece of American art wrong. I looked into it further, and the pieces/amounts I noted are for sale at auction rather than a private sale. I will ask the mods to correct that in my post.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:01 PM on January 16, 2023 [1 favorite]

C’mon, looking at the paintings for just a few seconds you can easily spot the colors, the handwriting, the composition is off. I think Midjourney could have produced something more believable.

The problem is that the artmarket - and museums - are always looking for a lost Van Gogh and thus overlook all the great art hidden away in the underground or museum storage.
posted by beesbees at 12:16 AM on January 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Mod note: (Added last paragraph info about auctions per OP's request.)
posted by taz (staff) at 1:30 AM on January 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Assholes. Bunch'a effing assholes. They're all transparently scamming and scheming. Just, Trump-level cramming.
But people have been forging Basquiat's works since shortly after he died - There were similar (I'm sure apocryphal (or not)) stories about VanGogh flower paintings and Modigliani's blander nudes. Despite that - when you see a real Basquiat, you know its a Basquiat - there's something to it that you just can't fuck with. Same with the other two: if it's real, then it's real.
The root problem is that you can't call out a fake painting without risking 'damaging' the investment of its 'owner' and setting yourself up for a wicked lawsuit. And the 'owner' is often rich enough that they can make that lawsuit financially ruinous for anyone that isn't as rich. It's a heck of a racket - like a big slice of the art market.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:32 AM on January 17, 2023

Could someone who actually knows what they're talking about explain to me why I'm supposed to think Basquiat is a genius? I have no background in art history, but whereas I can look at Picasso, or Mondrian, or Rothko, or Pollock, or Warhol, or even Keith Haring, and sort out what they were doing and why they did it and why it's important or meaningful, I look at Basquiat's paintings and I'm like these are just crude, shitty drawings that look like an eight-year-old did them. I know I'm on some level wrong, just because so many other people clearly value the guy's work, but I really don't get it. Please help.
posted by outgrown_hobnail at 4:56 AM on January 17, 2023

My favorite bit of commentary was this bit of "vandalism" in the style of Basquiat that showed up on the wall of the Renaissance Theatre just up the road from the Orlando Art Museum after this story broke:
posted by Lokheed at 5:39 AM on January 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

Basquiat a genius?

1. Like all art, it exists in an entirely different world than as portrayed in photographs. Dali's paintings, live, are a very different creature than photos of them (they're surprisingly small, for one thing.) So, if you haven't seen Basquiat's paintings "in the flesh" then you haven't actually seen them. Not saying it to be snotty, just, they have a different effect in the flesh.
2. When you look at a bunch of any one artist's work, you have a different sense of them than if you see only one or two. Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein is a very different painting when you've also seen his cubist paintings than if you just stumble upon it out of nowhere. This is the case with most art work, it exists in a continuum that starts far off in the past somewhere, before the artist was born (the historical context of painting, the historical manner of artistic production (Titian's/Rembrandt's/Koons' (etc.) studio-produced works vs. VanGogh or Cézanne's or Pinkham-Ryder's single-handed efforts and etc.).
Academically, you can go look at Cy Twombly to see a predecessor of Basquiat, and then also street-art of NYC in the 80's. Good painting is most often very conscious of history.
3. "If it sounds good, it is good." and this maxim goes across all art forms, and cooking. Basquiat's paintings look good. OK, all artists make a certain percentage of shitty/ meh work and Basquiat is no different there - but his good work (the heads, for example the one that sold for so much) is shocking. It doesn't have to be apparent to you, not everyone has the same taste - but when "Ist das Kunst, oder kann das weg?" (Is it art or can we throw it out / you know it when you see it) is applied, the vast majority come down on "No, we have to keep it."
(I once did a job (a plumbing job) for this couple who had a great, chill art collection - contemporary art from NYC, nothing insane but Haring, and F.Clemente were in it and, you know - it was nice and you know they had good taste. And then one day, talking with a carpenter on the site, we closed a door so he could check out moulding and there, behind the door was a Basquiat. Bought at an auction for Act/Up. Just a white sheet of paper with words on it, but damn. We all stopped and stared. I still think about that piece, 20+ years later.)
4. It demands you pay attention, like Beethoven, or Milton or Michaelangelo or Dürer.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:56 AM on January 17, 2023 [7 favorites]

I will try and explain a little about Basquiat? Please bear with me.

Every artist has a kind of rhythm in stroke, colour, tone and composition.

What does that mean? For stroke/technique, it means when they move their hands there are certain muscle movements that occur repeatedly. It becomes a signature, like everyone's signature is somewhat unique. The form of a line drawn by Schultz (Peanuts) is vastly different than one drawn by Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes). With practice, an artist's hand is as recognizable as their signature or face. Very, very difficult to imitate. No matter what medium they use, be it pencil, brush, a bucket of paint swinging from a step ladder, or whatever.

Similarly with colour -- the choices of colour are extremely unique to an artist. Which pigments they use, how much they vary, how many are blended together to create part of a painting. Are their skin tones smooth or full of variation kind of thing. Are the colours authentic? Do they contrast with each other, do they clash, how do they relate to the background, the foreground, the empty space of the work?

Tone -- how they represent light, and shadow, and gradients in between. Is the contrast hard, soft, something in between? Does it vary?

Composition -- look, I think you're getting the idea? Every artist builds a scene their own way, what are they saying with it, what is the point of view portrayed, etc etc etc.

OKAY SO what does this have to do with Basquiat? A moment first -- all of the above subjects in addition to being their own thing, ALSO relate to each other in the art. How do the choices of subject, composition, tone, colour and hand relate to each other? Do they resonate? They must resonate in some way, relate to one another, to reinforce the gestalt of what the artist is seeking to portray.

There is no right way or wrong way, like there is no wrong way to compose music, only that which is harmonious or disharmonious or anharmonious.

The last word is key: harmony and disharmony are intentional (one must play an off-key note sometimes or music has no heart in it for example, you must diverge from harmony and then resolve it), but anharmonic art is just noise, things that do not relate, don't work together to reinforce a consistent vision. This is the difference between a beginner artist and a master worker: in a masterpiece the work coheres entirely.

Okay BACK to Basquiat. For me all of the facets of his work convey a combination of chaos, anger, personal hardship, and yet personal integrity -- a maintanance of self in the face of difficulty. The lines are jagged but depict a shape. The colours are chaotic but assemble to represent a whole object. Tonality is harsh and sharp, with dire shadows and bright colours. Composition is sparse and severe, with dead space and concentrated markings. Subject matter is what is at hand, the self, the environment, what is in one's mind.

You see how everything at all these levels is all chaotic with a solid anchor in a similar way WHICH tells telling a story of the self affronted by chaos, not unaffected, not unhurt, not unmoved, and yet remaining the self. It's a hard fucking world, but you can, with a lot of effort, persevere.

That's what Basquiat means to me, and the way his paintings tells that story with harmony and disharmony and with a consistent and resonant hand, colour, tone, composition and use of subject matter is why his art is regarded so highly. (And why it's so god damn hard to fake.)

If you take the above kind of deconstruction and apply it to other master works by master artists, you'll see where the harmonies and disharmonies are, how they resonate to define a style which will help you appreciate the uniqueness of an artist as a creative force.

You don't have to like a piece of art, or an artist, but if you can suss out the resonances maybe you can understand a little bit more about why some folks do.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:00 AM on January 17, 2023 [11 favorites]

@seanmpuckett, that's a great way to look at art... thanks for the post
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 9:47 AM on January 17, 2023

>I may not love Basquiat’s work, but

>why I'm supposed to think Basquiat is a genius? I have no background in art history, but whereas I can look at Picasso, or Mondrian, or Rothko, or Pollock, or Warhol, or even Keith Haring, and sort out what they were doing and why they did it and why it's important or meaningful, I look at Basquiat's paintings and I'm like these are just crude, shitty drawings

> blah blah rap isn't music
> blah blah why are their hats backwards
> blah blah "he's so articulate" "he's intuitively talented" "he's naturally talented" "he's genetically gifted" "he has fast-twitch muscles" "she's so bright" "up-and-coming" "young man" "how did this animal get good at something" "well he's not actually that good at it"

Don't people get tired of lying to themselves why they can't ever see Black culture as valid genius? How intellectually dishonest can one be when you think Rothko's pretty paint swatches and Pollock's paint pukes and Keith Haring's identical explorations of the same little crawling dude a zillion times are "better" than Basquiat's uniquely incisive political takedowns? I mean Keith Haring and Rothko are great, I like them just fine, but you can understand them yet you just can't see why Basquiat is a genius? And you have no idea why? I have an idea why.

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Quote by Toni Morrison
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:17 AM on January 17, 2023 [5 favorites]

So, my take on Basquiat: he was a very young artist and oh his success made me so mad when I was young. He was just a few years older than me and out there making the same mistakes I was making only on a grander scale (giving driven somewhat crazy young creative addictive people access to almost unlimited money basically never ends well) and still painting these intense images and making it in the art world. I was so jealous: I hated his work. When he died I was even angrier because we never got to see the work he would have done as a fully fledged adult.

As I've gotten older I see more and more in it until now, I can look at a Basquiat almost as long as I can look at a Rothko (you can like them both, it's okay, it really is.) The thing that resonates for me though, then and now, was his youth. These are young angry paintings. There's a tremendous amount of youthful energy and blazing raw talent in them, but you're not seeing years and years of learning yourself as a person and an artist. The list of artists you gave as an example: Picasso, or Mondrian, or Rothko, or Pollock, or Warhol, or even Keith Haring - had relatively long careers (with the exception of Haring and he had four extra years that Basquiat did not get) and all of them, yes, even Pollock and Warhol, came from pretty traditionally trained backgrounds. Basquiat did not. He did not have years to learn his craft and refine his take on it. Neither did Haring, granted, but Haring went to an arts high school and from there to the School of Visual Arts in NYC, which at the time was basically the primo art school in the world.

Basquiat was not part of this tradition. He could so easily have been shunted into the outsider art category and it is a testament to just how good his work was that he was not. Seanmpuckett and FromBklyn have explained why his work was so good better than I could do but hopefully this gives you another take on why his work was different. And, yes it can be jarring. Jarring, by the way, is good, and initial loathing can be good too: it makes you think and look again. That right there is good art.
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:02 AM on January 17, 2023 [7 favorites]

What steams me about the Basquiat fakes is exactly what nouvelle-personne is talking about. Over the course of the last couple decades I've been trying to hear what Morrison and Baldwin and Malcom X and Ali (and every single other black artist and person with a voice) has been saying over and over and over without the background noise of 'regular America' (which is, really, white America). Because America is slavery and its aftermath (because I live in Germany, raising my kids +half-german with that excruciating history just there in their various grandparents' lives and can't help but notice the similarities are not small (with the glaring exception that Germany does not want to ignore its history. Its success is spotty but it's trying, in the majority, admirably hard.) and only by listening and accepting the truth of that history, slavery and all the death and despair it engendered, will America as a culture grow.

And Basquiat is as vital voice of the complexity and pain of American-ness as possible. And these fuck-sticks making rip-off paintings dilute that message. And make shitty paintings that people will look at and go, "Eh, he's not all that." And it's a desecration.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:04 PM on January 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

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