At Large  April 21, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

The Crazy Story of Fake Basquiats in Orlando

via Orlando Museum of Art

From Thad Mumford’s storage unit, said to be by Basquiat, “Untitled (Self-portrait with his cowboy hat and wearing Leonardo da Vinci’s flying suit),” from 1982 on corrugated cardboard.

 

 

If you haven’t been keeping up with what’s going on at the Orlando Museum of Art, buckle in, this one is weird and getting more interesting by the day. Last week, Los Angeles based auctioneer Michael Barzman confessed to playing a major role in producing dozens of fake Jean-Michel Basquiat works, many of which were displayed in a 2022 exhibition at the OMA, “Heroes & Monsters.”  In the plea agreement that was also filed last week, Barzman agreed to plead guilty to the felony offense and made a series of admissions about the fake paintings. He faces up to five years in prison.

It was a museum’s dream come true: last year, the Orlando Museum of Art acquired twenty-five Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings on cardboard. Never before seen, newly discovered, masterpieces. The OMA quickly mounted “Heroes & Monsters,” a public unveiling of these newly found works. The museum said that these were created in 1982, while Basquiat was living and working in Larry Gagosian’s home in Venice, California. The story goes that Basquiat sold these paintings directly to television screenwriter Thad Mumford for only $5,000 in cash, and Gagosian was kept out of the loop.

Wikimedia Commons

Jean-Michel Basquiat 1982, by Andy Warhol

 

The works then disappeared for thirty years, only reappearing when Mumford didn’t pay his bills, and his storage unit was auctioned off. The buyer, William Force, bought the lot for $15,000. But there were many doubts about the authenticity of these works. Why would Basquiat sell these without his dealer? How could they just go missing for thirty years? In a statement to the NYTimes, Larry Gagosian found the scenario “highly unlikely” and soon his concerns were echoed by other curators and Basquiat scholars. But the OMA held strong, with the director Aaron De Groft saying, “My reputation is at stake as well,” and “I’ve absolutely no doubt these are Basquiats.” 

But there was no official verdict that could be given; the Basquiat estate closed its authentication committee in 2012, after a lawsuit over other questionably authentic works.

Associated Press

The entrance to the exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art

 

The exhibition opened in February 2022 despite hushed concerns. But by June, things took a turn: a dozen FBI agents raided the OMA, taking all twenty-five works so that their Art Crime Team could look further into the works’ authenticity. Acting under a federal search warrant, the FBI was concerned that two crimes could have occurred: conspiracy and wire fraud. A Times report published at the time indicated concerns over specific details of the works, such as a FedEx shipping label on one of the pieces of cardboard that used a typeface that was used only after Basquiat’s death, and another work that had Barzman’s address on it. 

In October 2022, Barzman admitted to the FBI that he lied about the entire thing and that these works were, in fact, fakes. And this past week, Barzman was charged in federal court for the scandal. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in California, who issued a release last Tuesday, Barzman worked with a second man to create the fake Basquiats in 2012 after hatching a plan to market the bogus works. The second man, known only as “J.F.” would spent anywhere from five to thirty minutes on each image, and then would give the works to Barzman, who would sell them on eBay, where the pair would split the profits. 

Wikimedia Commons

Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruno Bischofberger, and Francesco Clemente in 1984,

 

Barzman’s auction business focused on purchasing and reselling contents of unpaid storage units, which inspired the next step in their plan: provenance. The pair planted the works in one of those storage units, owned by Thad Mumford, so that they could establish a previous owner of the works. In a separate interview almost ten years ago with the FBI, Mumford denied ever purchasing any Basquiats, further proving the fraud on Barzman’s side. Mumford even went so far as to signing a declaration that he did not meet with or purchase any paintings by Basquiat.

The paintings were owned by a few individuals, including William Force, an art and antiques dealer, Leo Mangan, a retired salesman, and Pierce O’Donnell, a lawyer, who all bought various works from Barzman via eBay. O’Donnell, who wanted to know the authenticity, even hired several experts and paid them over $60,000 for their work, all of whom said the works appeared genuine. 

After all that, the works are fakes and in FBI custody, Barzman could go to jail for his crimes, and the Orlando Museum of Art’s reputation is tarnished. The museum actually ended up firing Aaron de Groft as its director and chief executive, and formed a “task force” to help rebuild the public’s trust.

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