Orlando Museum of Art director told art expert who had doubts about Basquiat exhibit to 'stay in [her] limited lane'

"Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.”

click to enlarge Orlando Museum of Art director told art expert who had doubts about Basquiat exhibit to 'stay in [her] limited lane'
Photo by Macbeth Studio/courtesy OMA

New documents surrounding the FBI's raid of the Orlando Museum of Art show that doubts were expressed about their troubled Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit well before it opened.

In an affidavit obtained by the New York Times,  art expert Jordana Moore Saggese told investigators she was asked by OMA Director Aaron De Groft to "stay in your limited lane" after casting doubt on the paintings' origin.

Saggese — a professor at the University of Maryland — was called in to help authenticate the paintings. The Basquiat authentication committee run by the late painter's estate disbanded more than a decade ago, making sussing out newly uncovered paintings from counterfeits uniquely difficult. Named as Expert 2 in the FBI affidavit supporting the FBI's search warrant of the museum, Saggese said she was pressured to keep quiet by De Groft. 

"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 reportedly wrote in an email after Saggese asked for her name to be removed from the exhibit.  “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

Saggese alleged that an interview about the paintings that the museum touted was in fact entirely fabricated and never took place. Her attorneys added that she never agreed unequivocally that the paintings were genuine.

"In February 2022 (shortly before the opening of the Exhibit), Dr. Saggese heard rumors that... Dr. Aaron De Groft, the Director and CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art, had falsely claimed that she attributed each work in the Exhibit to Basquiat. Dr. Saggese contacted both Mr. [Peter] O’Donnell and to Dr. De Groft to ensure that they were not sharing the Reports or misrepresenting her opinions. Both denied doing so to her," her attorney shared with Orlando Weekly. "Yet neither were truthful. As it transpired, Mr. O’Donnell invented an entirely fictionalized narrative with Dr. Saggese that spans several pages of the exhibition catalog. He also misleadingly quoted from Dr. Saggese’s Reports to suggest that she concluded that all of the OMA works were by Basquiat."

The 25 paintings that made up the museum's Heroes & Monsters exhibit have been a target of investigators for years. The story around the paintings says they were uncovered in a storage unit owned by late screenwriter Thad Mumford, Jr. The owners claim that the paintings were made in 1982 while Basquiat was living in the home of LA-based art dealer Larry Gagosian. The paintings were reportedly sold to Mumford for $5,000.

Gagosian himself has said the story is unlikely, and according to the affidavit obtained by the NYT, Mumford told federal agents in 2014 that he had neither met Basquiat nor purchased any of his paintings. He signed a sworn statement in 2017 to that effect. Mumford added that he was pressured by the paintings' owners to corroborate the story, in exchange for 10% of the sale price.

The FBI seized the paintings in question last Friday, which would be worth nearly $100 million dollars if authentic. Willfully selling art that is known to be counterfeit is a federal crime. OMA leadership continues to maintain that the paintings are legitimate.

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