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University of Maryland professor speaks out about the Basquiat art forgery scandal: ‘I wish to set the record straight’

A University of Maryland art professor caught up in the art forgery controversy swirling around a now-discredited exhibit of the works of the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Orlando Museum of Art went public Friday in an effort to clear her name.

Jordana Moore Saggese, a professor of American art at the university, wrote in a statement released Friday night by her attorneys that tentative opinions that she expressed in two reports as to the authenticity of more than two dozen paintings purportedly by Basquiat, once known as “the Black Picasso,” were twisted and taken out of context. She wrote that her provisional analyses were used to provide an aura of legitimacy to the exhibit that she had never intended.

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“For several months, my name and reputation have been dragged into the public scandal surrounding the discredited Basquiat works previously on display at the Orlando Museum of Art,” she wrote.

“I wish to set the record straight.”

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The scandal has roiled the art world since the FBI raided the Orlando Museum of Art on June 24 and seized all 25 canvasses on view in the exhibit, “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection.”

According to a 41-page search warrant, the FBI confiscated the artworks, all of which were for sale, six days before the exhibit was scheduled to close one year early and depart the museum for Italy.

“I believe that the significantly advanced date of the international departure of the Mumford Collection from OMA is to avoid further scrutiny of the provenance and authenticity of the works by the public and law enforcement,” Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas wrote in the warrant.

Four days after the raid, the museum’s board of trustees severed relations with its museum director.

“The Orlando Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees is extremely concerned about several issues with regard to the “Heroes and Monsters” exhibition,” chairwoman Cynthia Brumback wrote in a June 28 email.

“Effective immediately, Aaron De Groft is no longer director and CEO of Orlando Museum of Art.”

Basquiat, who died in 1988 from a heroin overdose at age 27, is a favorite target of art forgers. As recently as late May, federal agents charged a prominent dealer in Palm Beach, Florida, with wire fraud, mail fraud, and money laundering for selling allegedly fake works by Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others for millions of dollars.

Partly, that’s because the self-taught Basquiat’s style — highly expressionistic and based in graffiti — can appear deceptively simple to imitate. But it’s mostly because Basquiat’s work has skyrocketed in value.

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In 2017, an untitled 1982 painting by Basquiat of a black skull on a turquoise background went under the hammer at auction for $110.5 million and remains one of the most expensive paintings by an American artist ever sold.

But what elevates the seizure of the works in “Heroes & Monsters” above the run-of-the-mill art forgery scandal is the involvement of a respected regional museum with annual revenues in 2018 of about $2.7 million. Among other red flags that might have tipped off curators, one artwork is painted on a piece of cardboard displaying the FedEx logo. But the logo is in a typeface that wasn’t created until 1994, the warrant said — six years after Basquiat’s death.

The warrant also describes aggressive efforts by De Groft to quash dissent.

Saggese wrote that when she attempted to dissociate herself with the exhibit, De Groft “bullied and insulted me and even sought to blackmail me.”

The warrant quotes from an email that De Groft allegedly sent to Saggese on Feb. 12, in which he threatened to reveal that she had been paid $60,000 to issue two reports stating her opinion of the two dozen artworks.

“You want us to put out there you got 60 grand to write this?” the email asks. “Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.”

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The email goes on to say, “Be quiet is my best advice,” and “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

In her email, Brumback described De Groft’s remarks as “inappropriate.”

The FBI has been investigating the alleged scam since the fall of 2013. The warrant outlines a convoluted scheme in which the forgers claimed that two dozen lost Basquiats had been discovered in a storage locker formerly owned by the late television producer and writer Thaddeus Quentin Mumford Jr.

The warrant claims that the collection’s owners fabricated a story that the Emmy Award-winning Mumford — who had worked on such hits as “M*A*S*H” and “The Cosby Show” — had befriended Basquiat in the 1980s and purchased a treasure trove of paintings for $5,000 in cash.

According to the story, Mumford placed the paintings in a storage locker, where they languished for three decades. After Mumford stopped paying rent on the locker, the paintings were auctioned off in 2012, the collection’s owners said.

The owners pressured Mumford to support their story, the warrant said. They offered to finance a television show produced by Mumford if only he would sign the ownership declaration. When that ploy didn’t work, the warrant said, in 2017 they upped their offer to 10% of the net proceeds from the sale.

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The collection’s owners didn’t know that Mumford had been interviewed by the FBI twice in 2014 and signed an affidavit saying that he had never met with Basquiat, never bought paintings from the artist, and never stored paintings by the artist in his locker.

Mumford died in September 2018 at his father’s home in Silver Spring.

About a year before, the collection’s owners had hired Saggese, the author of two books on Basquiat, to provide her professional opinion of the artworks. Saggese wrote that she “trusted and relied” on the attorney who told her the story about Mumford and Basquiat and the storage locker. At the time, Saggese was a professor at California College of the Arts.

The attorney also dangled a golden carrot in front of the professor’s eyes, telling Saggese “that after the artwork sold for millions of dollars, [he] would fund scholarships,” in her discipline.

Nonetheless, the professor was determined to remain objective. Some of the purported Basquiats she dismissed as forgeries. When she examined others, she was unsure.

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“I rejected nine works outright,” Saggese said.

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“I concluded that 11 works could be Basquiat’s based solely on a review of photographs,” she wrote. She reserved the right to change her mind after inspecting the works in person, which she was never able to do.

But her opinion of half a dozen of the artworks in the collection was more favorable. According to the warrant, Saggese wrote that it was her “professional opinion that this work is consistent with the hand of Jean-Michel Basquiat and may be attributed to him.”

In making that determination, the professor said she relied on a positive finding from a handwriting expert who had been hired to verify Basquiat’s signature. And she relied on what she had been told was an airtight story tracing the artworks’ provenance.

But for even the works that she thought were most likely to have been created by Basquiat, Saggese emphasized in her reports that her findings were preliminary and should not be construed as establishing their authenticity.

So she was outraged when she learned that excerpts from the reports were quoted in the catalog and that “incomplete and misleading extracts” had been leaked to The New York Times.

“Those claims are false,” she wrote, “and their publication caused me substantial reputational damage and emotional distress. Nowhere in the reports did I provide the positive or definitive attribution to Basquiat of any of the OMA works.”


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