Basquiat expert denies she authenticated disputed paintings the FBI seized from Florida museum

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Jordana Moore Saggese, an expert on the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, claims her assessment of works the FBI seized last month from the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) was mischaracterised by the organisers of the exhibition Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection, which featured 25 discredited works originally presented as authentic Basquiats.

The works in question, purportedly purchased directly from Basquiat in 1982 by the screenwriter Thad Mumford and discovered in 2012 in a storage unit he had failed to pay for, were bought at auction for $15,000 by a dealer named William Force and his financier Lee Mangin. Subsequently, Los Angeles lawyer Pierce O’Donnell bought an interest in some of the paintings.

However, an affidavit submitted by the FBI to secure its search warrant of the OMA included a 2017 statement signed by Mumford asserting 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”. In the wake of the FBI raid, OMA’s board fired the museum’s director, Aaron De Groft, who had defended the works’ authenticity and, it was revealed, sent threatening emails to Saggese.

In a statement excerpted by the Baltimore Sun and published in full by ARTnews, Saggese writes that she was hired in 2017 by O’Donnell to evaluate the authenticity of 27 works (the artist’s estate disbanded its authentication committee in 2012). “I rejected nine works outright. I concluded that 11 works ‘could be’ Basquiat’s based solely on a review of photographs,” Saggese wrote. She ultimately only evaluated seven works in person. “I determined that possibly seven works ‘may be’ his.”

Those assessments, provided in two reports, “were expressly not to be used or relied upon by third parties (including for authentication purposes) and could not be disseminated without my prior written consent”, she wrote. Nevertheless, after the declined O’Donnell and De Groft’s invitation in 2019 to be involved in the Heroes & Monsters exhibition, Saggese wrote that she reiterated to them that her reports were not to be publicly shared or used to assert the authenticity of the works.

“O’Donnell misleadingly quoted from my confidential reports in the OMA exhibition catalogue to suggest that I had concluded that all of the OMA works were by Basquiat,” she wrote. “Meanwhile, when I wrote to Dr. De Groft to reiterate my request that my name not be used in connection with the Exhibit, he bullied and insulted me and even sought to blackmail me.”

OMA board chair Cynthia Brumback cited “the recent revelation of an inappropriate email correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition” as a factor in De Groft’s firing.

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