F.B.I. Investigates Basquiat Paintings Shown at Orlando Museum of Art!

“Artworks purported to be by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” are the subject of a subpoena.


Whether it’s brisk sales of $29.99 Basquiat-themed T-shirts at The Gap, large crowds at Basquiat’s most recent art exhibitions or an actual canvas by the painter auctioned last week for $85 million, the ongoing cultural fascination with Jean-Michel Basquiat shows no signs of waning.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has now joined the ranks of those who are obsessively interested in Basquiat.

Twenty-five paintings on display at the Orlando Museum of Art, which the museum claims were created by Basquiat, are being investigated by the FBI’s Art Crime Team, according to a federal subpoena and several people with knowledge of the situation at hand.

This year’s exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” is said to have been recovered from a storage unit in Los Angeles in 2012. The works were largely unseen before the show’s February opening. An article in The New York Times raised questions about their authenticity, reporting that a designer who had previously worked for Federal Express had identified the FedEx typeface on a piece of cardboard Basquiat was said to have painted on as one that was not designed until 1994 — six years after the artist’s death.

A statement from art world experts commissioned by the painting’s owners and the museum’s director and CEO, Aaron De Groft, substantiates this claim. Cynthia Brumback, the museum’s board chairwoman, has publicly backed De Groft’s cause. The paintings are set to leave the museum on June 30 for public exhibitions in Italy.

F.B.I. Special Agents have interviewed people in the art and design worlds, focusing on the paintings in the exhibition and on their primary owners, who have previously said in interviews that they were trying to sell the works. According to two museum employees who requested anonymity because they claim De Groft has warned the staff that anyone speaking to the media will be fired, those being investigated include De Groft.

He refused to comment on any F.B.I. questioning or OMA staff instructions, as the museum is known when asked. The F.B.I. demanded, “any” communications between museum employees and the owners of artworks “purported to be by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” in a subpoena issued to OMA on July 27, 2021. This included correspondence with experts regarding the artwork. When The New York Times looked into this request for records, they learned the FBI also wanted access to museum board of trustees minutes about the paintings in question.

"Untitled (Industry Insider)" is one of the 25 works from the Thad Mumford storage locker that is supposedly a Basquiat. Credit... The New York Times's Melanie Metz contributed to this piece.
“Untitled (Industry Insider)” is one of the 25 works from the Thad Mumford storage locker that is supposedly a Basquiat. Credit… The New York Times’s Melanie Metz contributed to this piece.

A spokesperson for the FBI refused to discuss the investigation or its current status. However, a person with knowledge of the investigation claims that he was interviewed in April. Putnam Fine Art and Antique Appraisals, the appraisers hired by the owners, estimate the Basquiat paintings to be worth $100 million if they are genuine.

The F.B.I. investigation’s specific focus and who the agency is targeting are unknown. However, it would be a federal crime to knowingly sell fake art.

According to De Groft and the owners of the 25 paintings, Basquiat scavenged cardboard slabs from beneath the Los Angeles home of art dealer Larry Gagosian in late 1982 while he was working on new work for a show at Gagosian’s gallery. A television screenwriter named Thad Mumford bought the works from Basquiat for $5,000, and Mumford stored them in a storage unit for 30 years, until the contents of the space were seized and auctioned off in 2012 due to nonpayment of rent. (Gagosian has stated that he “finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely.”) ” William Force, art and antique dealer, and Lee Mangin, a retired salesman, purchased the screenwriter’s trove for about $15,000 each.

In 2016, Pierce O’Donnell, a Los Angeles-based trial lawyer, represented both Amber Heard in her divorce from Johnny Depp as well as Angelina Jolie in her split from Brad Pitt. After that, he bought shares in six of the 25 pieces and hired a slew of experts, all of whom agreed that they appeared genuine. The Basquiat estate’s authentication committee disbanded in 2012, at a time when many other artists’ estates were ceasing to authenticate artwork due to expensive litigation. The legitimacy of works that lack more established provenance can be enhanced by exhibiting them in a museum.

In tracing the history of the paintings, authorities rely heavily on the testimony of two men named Mangin and Force, who were both convicted of felony drug trafficking under different names.

Director defends Orlando Museum of Art after skepticism over authenticity of Basquiat paintings

When William Parks was arrested in 1973, he pleaded no contest to charges of conspiracy to smuggle over half a tonne of marijuana from Jamaica to Miami by ship.

In both 1979 and 1991, Mangin, also known as Leo Mangan to the authorities, was found guilty of federal charges of cocaine trafficking. As part of a criminal ring, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of forging documents and illegally issuing over five million shares of bogus stock, which earned him over $8 million in illicit gains. Mangan was found guilty in 1999 and sentenced to a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

Mangan and his wife, Michelle, were later accused by the Federal Trade Commission of defrauding a large number of consumers through the debt consolidation companies they owned. Without admitting guilt, the couple paid nearly $400,000 to settle F.T.C. charges in 2008.

Leo Mangan and his wife, Michelle Mangan, accompanied the Orlando Museum of Art's director Aaron De Groft at the February opening of the Basquiat exhibition. Please give credit where credit is due...
Leo Mangan and his wife, Michelle Mangan, accompanied the Orlando Museum of Art’s director Aaron De Groft at the February opening of the Basquiat exhibition. Please give credit where credit is due…

He also has a criminal record, having pleaded no contest to violating campaign finance laws back in 2006 and admitted to doing so again in 2011, which resulted in a 60-day sentence.

If the paintings’ provenance is “airtight,” as Richard LiPuma, a lawyer for Leo Mangan, asserted, then the fact that the owners were once in legal trouble is irrelevant to the question of authenticity.

Owners’ mistakes from 25 to 40 years ago “do not reflect on the paintings,” he said. “The F.B.I. investigation appears by us to be nothing more than a government agency doing its job by following up on a tip, one he said was ‘undocumented,'” LiPuma said of the investigation.

A request for comment from Force went unanswered. “My misdemeanors for campaign finance law violations occurred about 20 years ago,” O’Donnell wrote in an email. “The paintings are authentic,” he added. There was a thorough investigation by a team of five experts. It was stated that he was eager to cooperate fully with the FBI

Two witnesses claim that De Groft assured museum staff who voiced doubts about the authenticity of the Basquiats earlier this winter that the subpoena was merely a formality.

Requests for comment from Brumback, the board chair, went unanswered. “We know questions have been raised about the exhibit,” she told the Orlando Sentinel, but she insisted that the museum’s visitors had responded enthusiastically to it. According to her, attendance was up, diversity was up, and sales were up. “It’s important to us that people are having a good time. “It helps us achieve our goals.”

Mangan said in an interview this winter that he and Force had lunch with Mumford in Los Angeles after purchasing the paintings in 2012. Dad told them about his purchase of 25 paintings from Basquiat in 1982, and how Dad had written a poem to commemorate the occasion, which Basquiat signed by initialing it on a piece of printer paper.

Mangan claims Mumford gave him the poem during their meeting, even though Mumford was said to have misplaced 25 artworks in storage.

De Groft included the poem in the museum’s exhibition as further evidence of the paintings’ authenticity. “The poem is almost like a receipt, it refers to the works, it refers to the inscriptions in the works, it refers to the time,” he said this winter in an interview.

Even Mumford’s closest friends and family members aren’t convinced. Aside from her silence on contemporary art, Mumford’s silence on buying Basquiats is telling.

In addition, Sheldon Bull, a television screenwriter, and producer who collaborated with Mumford on “M” and “A Different World” in the early 1980s, claims that Mumford couldn’t type.

Bull recalled that Thad used a legal pad to write. Back in the 1970s, before computers, many people used to send their documents to typists. “I never saw Thad type a single letter,” he said in the 1980s. According to him: “Thad was the most technophobic person I’ve ever encountered.” Because he didn’t have one, “

A FedEx shipping box with a visible imprint: “Align the top of FedEx Shipping Label here” is among the cardboards on which the Basquiats are painted.

The cardboard was shown to an independent brand expert, Lindon Leader, by The Times. When he was working at the Landor Associates advertising firm in 1994, six years after the artist’s death, he redesigned the company’s logo and typefaces, and he said that the typeface in the imprint was almost certainly based on Univers.

The cardboard's owners claim that Basquiat painted on it in 1982. This typeface was designed by Lindon Leader, who claims he created it in 1994 rather than 1982.
The cardboard’s owners claim that Basquiat painted on it in 1982. This typeface was designed by Lindon Leader, who claims he created it in 1994 rather than 1982.

For 30 years, the art world has wondered about the other 24 paintings it is said to have been created with and stored alongside.

Federal Express, according to De Groft, used a variety of fonts on its shipping materials in the 1980s, citing unspecified research. There are strict guidelines for typeface and other graphic designs, and this idea is “ridiculous,” the company’s leader said in an interview recently. No word from Federal Express.

Despite a request this week for De Groft’s source on the FedEx font usage, he did not respond. A 2017 analysis by handwriting expert James Blanco identified signatures on many of the 25 paintings as being Basquiat’s, which he has cited to support the authenticity of the works.

This year’s Diego Cortez statement certifying each painting as authentic Basquiat was signed and dated 2018-19. (The late Cortez served on the Basquiat estate’s authentication committee; he died last year.)

A report from University of Maryland associate professor of art Jordana Moore Saggese, author of “Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art,” has also been highlighted by De Groft. Saggese’s written analysis — for which O’Donnell claims to have paid at least $25,000 — claimed that all 25 works of art were the work of Basquiat, according to interviews with De Groft, Mangan, and O’Donnell conducted this winter.

The owners had removed pages from Saggese’s report that stated that nine of the 25 paintings could not be attributed to Basquiat, she later said in an interview.

She described the editing process for her report as tense. They “started to push back at me, the more I started to question their motives,” she said.

It's reported that Basquiat painted Untitled (Self Portrait or Crown Face II) on the back of a FedEx shipment box in 1982. Please give credit where credit is due...
It’s reported that Basquiat painted Untitled (Self Portrait or Crown Face II) on the back of a FedEx shipment box in 1982. Please give credit where credit is due…

Other experts were baffled by Saggese’s description of the editing process. Allowing an artwork’s owner to have any influence on attribution is typically considered “unethical,” according to Colette Loll, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the founder and director of Art Fraud Insights.

After being asked to authenticate two Basquiat paintings by O’Donnell, Loll, who has trained members of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, said she turned them down.

On Twitter, she wrote, “The lack of any real scientific analysis on methods and materials speaks volumes.” “Handwriting analysis and poems don’t authenticate artworks,” she added in a subsequent tweet.