The Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the Orlando Museum of Art on Friday, taking all 25 works that had been part of an exhibition on the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the museum said.
An affidavit filed to secure the search warrant called the collection’s origin story, as it had been described by its owners and the museum, into question, and noted that there was reason to doubt the authenticity of the art works.
The New York Times had previously reported that the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team had been investigating the authenticity of 25 paintings that the museum had said were created by Basquiat and were on exhibit there for months.
A spokeswoman for the museum said Friday that it had complied with a request from the F.B.I. for access to its “Heroes and Monsters” exhibit, and that the exhibit was now in the F.B.I.’s possession.
“It is important to note that we still have not been led to believe the museum has been or is the subject of any investigation,” the spokeswoman, Emilia Bourmas-Fry, said in an emailed statement. “We continue to see our involvement purely as a fact witness.”
The Basquiat exhibit had been set to close on June 30, and the works were scheduled to be exhibited next in Italy. Museum officials said they would continue to cooperate with the authorities.
According to museum employees, more than a dozen F.B.I. agents arrived at the museum Friday morning. They walked through its front doors, presented a warrant, and then promptly began removing the 25 paintings from the museum’s walls. The museum was quickly closed to the public, as curious visitors peered through the now-locked entrance and gathered outside and F.B.I. agents boxed up the paintings and moved them into waiting vehicles at the museum’s loading dock.
A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. confirmed that a federal search warrant had been executed on Friday at the museum and said the investigation by the Art Crime Team was ongoing.
The unsealed search warrant, which The Times reviewed, was signed by a judge on Thursday. The 41-page affidavit was issued on the basis that two possible crimes may have occurred: Conspiracy and wire fraud. In the documents, the F.B.I. said it was investigating the exhibition and attempted sale of 25 paintings, and said its investigation had revealed, among other things, “false information related to the alleged prior ownership of the paintings.”
The authorities also said that their investigation had revealed “attempts to sell the paintings using false provenance, and bank records show possible solicitation of investment in artwork that is not authentic.”
The paintings in the “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” exhibition were said by the museum and their owners to have been recovered from a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012. The works were largely unseen before the show’s February opening.
A Times report published that month raised questions about their authenticity. It noted that one of the art works was painted on the back of a cardboard shipping box bearing an instruction to “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here,” in a typeface that a designer who worked for Federal Express said was not used until 1994 — six years after Basquiat’s death.
The affidavit for the search warrant, which was signed by Elizabeth Rivas, a special agent for the F.B.I., notes, “Forensic information indicates that the cardboard on which one painting was made contains a typeface that was created in 1994, after Basquiat had passed, thereby calling into question the authenticity of at least one piece.”
The owners of the paintings, and the Orlando museum’s director and chief executive, Aaron De Groft, have all maintained that the works are genuine. None immediately returned a request for comment about the seizure of the paintings.
Both De Groft and the owners have said that the works, done on pieces of scavenged cardboard, were done by Basquiat in late 1982 when he was living and working out of a studio beneath the Los Angeles home of the art dealer Larry Gagosian and preparing for a show at Gagosian’s gallery. They said Basquiat sold the works for $5,000 to a now-deceased television screenwriter, Thad Mumford, who put them into a storage unit and apparently forgot about them for 30 years — until the unit’s contents were seized for nonpayment of rent and auctioned off in 2012. (Gagosian has said he “finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely.”)
In the affidavit for the search warrant, Rivas stated that she interviewed Mumford in 2014 and learned that “Mumford never purchased Basquiat artwork and was unaware of any Basquiat artwork being in his storage locker.”
Mumford also told Rivas that one of the artworks’ owners had “pressured him to sign documents” claiming that he had owned the collection, which would help establish the paintings’ authenticity, even offering in an email to give him a “10% percent interest in the net proceeds.”
The affidavit says that in 2017, a year before his death, Mumford signed a declaration in the presence of federal agents stating that “at no time in the 1980s or at any other time did I meet with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and at no time did I acquire or purchase any paintings by him.”
The paintings were bought for about $15,000 by William Force, an art and antiques dealer, and Leo Mangan, a retired salesman. Pierce O’Donnell, a lawyer, later bought an interest in six of the 25 works and hired several experts who said that the works appeared genuine.
One of those hired experts, who was identified in the affidavit only as “Expert-2,” told the F.B.I. that her work was being mischaracterized by the paintings’ owners. After being paid $60,000, the affidavit notes, the expert later contacted the museum to ask that her name not be associated at all with the exhibition. It said that the museum’s director, De Groft, had replied to her via email: “You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this? Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.” De Groft, still insisting the paintings were genuine, then threatened to share the details of that payment with her employer: “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”
The Basquiat estate’s authentication committee disbanded in 2012, when many artists’ estates stopped trying to authenticate works because of costly litigation.
If authentic, the Basquiat paintings would be worth about $100 million, according to Putnam Fine Art and Antique Appraisals, which assessed them for the owners. The owners have said in previous interviews that they were trying to sell the works.
The intentional sale of art known to be fake is a federal crime.