Questions and doubts overshadow Orlando Museum of Art's Basquiat show ‘Heroes and Monsters’

“Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II)” attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat/1982. (image courtesy Orlando Museum of Art)
“Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II)” attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat/1982. (image courtesy Orlando Museum of Art) Matte acrylic, wax crayon and paint stick on corrugated cardboard, 9 3⁄4 x 10 1⁄2 in. MJL Family Trust, LLC

If you're going to get scooped, it eases the blow somewhat for it to be the New York Times that does it. (Updated Feb. 23, 2022.)

Validating weeks of whispers, Brett Sokol of the Times published a report today that openly questions the veracity of the 25 Basquiat works hanging in the Orlando Museum of Art's just-opened show Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection. The exhibition consists of "never before seen" works by Basquiat, and it's been positioned as a staggering coup by OMA and its new director, Dr. Aaron De Groft.

click to enlarge Questions and doubts overshadow Orlando Museum of Art's Basquiat show ‘Heroes and Monsters’ (2)
screengrab from New York Times front page , Feb. 16, 2022

Orlando Weekly received a tip in the weeks leading up to the opening of Heroes & Monsters that questions were being asked about the provenance of the pieces. Our tipster claimed that a gag order had been handed down to staff by museum higher-ups — a claim De Groft has strenuously denied — and that computers had been seized from the museum by the FBI. Being somewhat less abundantly resourced than the New York Times, we weren’t able to file an investigation before they did (though we are still pursu- ing the story)..

We experienced quite a lot of difficulty in obtaining press materials and getting confirmation of various details for the show, something that had never been a problem before with OMA. Perhaps it was unrelated, but in combination with the persistent rumors, it made us wonder what was going on behind the scenes at the museum.

And of course, the story is too good to be true: a cache of forgotten Basquiat works found in an abandoned storage locker, from a year the artist was at the height of his powers. As Kyle Eagle says in his feature on the show opening, "This is the art world's equivalent of going to Vegas having never played poker and being dealt a royal flush."

He was referring to Mumford having purchased the work for $5,000, but it goes for OMA as well. There's something almost cinematic about these pieces' discovery, but, Sokol writes, "De Groft bristle[s] at such skepticism. 'My reputation is at stake as well,' he said in an interview. 'And I’ve absolutely no doubt these are Basquiats.' Beyond his own trained eye — he has a Ph.D. in art history from Florida State University — he cited a battery of reports commissioned by the artworks’ current owners."

Besides the conflicting reports referenced in the NYT story, there are many possible shades of gray here — it's not simply a matter of A: They're 100% real, or B: They're fraudulent. The art could be real, but the provenance is sketchy. To my admittedly untrained eye, they look like studio detritus: preliminary sketches for larger works or random doodles, possibly made by the artist, or possibly by his friends who were hanging out there. The fact that he was in Los Angeles working together Toxic, Rammellzee and other creatives supports this; the materials (cardboard boxes, sometimes both sides) support this. Basquiat’s “SAMO” tag doesn’t show up in this batch, though his crown symbol and various iterations of his signature do.

But even if Basquiat’s hand did make these marks, or some of these marks, does that make “Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II)” the artistic equivalent of, say, “Untitled (Skull)”? The skull was painted in the same year on a canvas more than 6 feet high, and sold in May 2017 for a record-setting $110.5 million; the face is on a 9.75 by 10.5-inch piece of corrugated cardboard. That’s not a yes-or-no question; the value of art is always highly subjective.

Provenance, while somewhat nuanced, is less subjective. The piece of cardboard in question is part of a Federal Express box, with writing visible on the reverse side, and a brand expert who designed the typeface for FedEx said the box could not have been made earlier than 1994.

After multiple requests for comment, OMA’s director of communications provided this statement: “We recognize the challenges it may pose when new works appear after an artist’s estate authentication committee is dissolved. That is why we diligently undertook a very rigorous process of research and evaluation before opening this exhibit. The art has been fully authenticated by credible sources, including the person who led the Basquiat estate authentication committee; signed off by leading Basquiat historians, forensic professionals and handwriting experts. This is a regarded industry standard of evaluation and was followed intricately in our planning for this exhibit. We are confident the works are authentic and are proud to present them for the first time to the viewing public.”

De Groft also said to the Orlando Sentinel, “Our job is not to authenticate art. Our job is to bring the best art to the people of Orlando and Orange County.”

It’s an interesting sentiment from a museum professional who has launched a new lecture series, ‘Connoisseurship & Collecting,’ promising patrons “an evening of mystery and intrigue as we explore the unique stories of art sleuthing filled with forensics, archival documents, questions surrounding the art and artist’s hand. Have you ever wondered how new discoveries of lost old master paintings come about? Here’s your chance to learn about it through the world of art detectives.”

Additional reporting by Kyle Eagle, Alex Galbraith and Matthew Moyer.

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Jessica Bryce Young

Jessica Bryce Young has been working with Orlando Weekly since 2003, serving as copy editor, dining editor and arts editor before becoming editor in chief in 2016.
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