FBI Seizes Museum Exhibit of Questioned Basquiat Paintings

Orlando museum has defended the art as legitimate
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted May 30, 2022 8:24 AM CDT
Updated Jun 24, 2022 5:15 PM CDT
A Basquiat Exhibit Draws Interest of the FBI
File photo: These Basquiat works, on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in 2010, are not in question.   (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

(Newser) Update: FBI investigators went to an art museum on Friday and left with more than two dozen paintings. A spokeswoman for the Orlando Museum of Art said the FBI brought a warrant for access to an exhibit of works advertised as being by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, the AP reports. The exhibit is now in the hands of the government, Emilia Bourmas-Fry said, adding that no museum employees were arrested. The agency has been investigating whether the art is truly by Basquiat for years. Our original story from May follows:

The museum insists they're legit. The FBI isn't so sure. The agency's Art Crime Team is investigating the authenticity of 25 paintings purported to be by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat now on display at the Orlando Museum of Art, reports the New York Times. At stake is not just the credibility of the museum and its director, Aaron De Groft—the paintings are worth an estimated $100 million in total for their three owners. As the investigation unfolds, the “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” exhibit is preparing to hit the road and travel to Italy for public exhibitions at the end of next month. The paintings have a made-for-the-movies back story: The museum and the owners say Basquiat painted them in the early 1980s on scavenged cardboard, then sold them on the cheap to a TV screenwriter who put them in a Los Angeles storage unit.

When the screenwriter died, his storage unit was seized in 2012 and the contents auctioned off. A previous story by the Times in February, when the Orlando exhibit opened, raised an intriguing doubt about the paintings. One of the works is done on an old FedEx box. But a designer who once worked for that company says the typeface seen in the "Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here" instructions did not surface until 1994, six years after the artist's death. De Groft is not commenting on the FBI investigation, which includes a subpoena for all communication between his museum and the owners, all three of whom have criminal records. (In New York City this month, police say a couple tried to walk out of a gallery with a Basquiat.)

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