In a late-night email, an Orlando Museum of Art spokeswoman said Sunday the institution would “continue to cooperate” with the FBI as the agency investigates the authenticity of works purportedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat on view in a high-profile exhibition — even as the works are set to leave the museum, and the country, a year earlier than originally planned.
“Heroes and Monsters,” an exhibit of works supposedly sold by Basquiat before his death in 1988 — and then left languishing in a storage locker for decades — opened to great fanfare in February. Museum director Aaron De Groft proclaimed the 25 paintings “masterpieces” and hosted a lavish opening party.
[ Basquiat draws crowds to Orlando Museum of Art, but questions haven’t gone away ]
But a New York Times article quickly raised questions about the authenticity of the works — though museum officials have steadfastly stood by the art. On Sunday, The Times reported the FBI’s Art Crimes Team is investigating the works, based on a 2021 subpoena it obtained and interviews with anonymous sources, including some identified as museum employees.
In her email later that night, OMA spokeswoman Emilia Bourmas-Fry confirmed the museum had been contacted by the FBI in 2021 — but said the museum itself was not the target of the probe and agents had not visited the institution in Loch Haven Park, north of downtown.
“Last year, the Museum complied with a request for information,” Bourmas-Fry wrote. “The Museum has never been led to believe it was or is the subject of any investigation and has never had any FBI activity on-site. We see our involvement purely as a fact witness.”
The New York Times reported that the FBI subpoena required the museum to hand over Board of Trustees records about the art, as well as “any and all” communication between employees, the artworks’ owners and experts consulted about the paintings. But the newspaper said the subpoena did not make clear specifically whom was being investigated. The sale of art known to be fake is a federal crime.
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At stake is a big financial payoff for the California-based owners, art dealer William Force, retired salesman Lee Mangin and attorney Pierce O’Donnell — if the works could be sold. One estimate valued them at $100 million if genuine.
Basquiat had a short but meteoric career, bursting onto the cultural scene as a street artist in the early 1980s. After just a few years of creating his distinctive graffitilike work, he died of a heroin overdose at age 27.
Meanwhile, the “Heroes and Monsters” exhibition will be closing in a matter of weeks — just four months after opening — despite originally being announced as running through the summer of 2023. Bourmas-Fry confirmed via email that the exhibit would close at the end of June and be shipped to Italy, where exhibitions are planned. She would not say when or why the decision to end the exhibit early was made.
“Due to the sensitivities of the situation, we cannot comment further than the statement,” she wrote.
But even though the art will have departed Orlando, she said, the museum would still assist the FBI in its investigation.
“As we close the ‘Heroes and Monsters’ exhibition in a few weeks, we will continue to cooperate should there ever be any future requests,” she wrote.
Find me on Twitter @matt_on_arts, facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at [email protected]. Want more theater and arts news and reviews? Go to orlandosentinel.com/arts.