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FBI seizes Basquiat paintings amid doubts over authenticity

By AFP - Jun 25,2022 - Last updated at Jun 26,2022

A woman looks at Jean-Michel Basquiat's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict' during Christie's 20th and 21st Century Art press preview in New York in April (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — FBI agents seized all 25 works at a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit in Florida amid questions about their authenticity, the museum which was showing them said on Saturday.

The Orlando Museum of Art said it had complied with a request for access to works at the show called "Heroes and Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat" and that the paintings are now in the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"It is important to note that we still have not been led to believe the Museum has been or is the subject of any investigation," museum spokeswoman Emilia Bourmas-Fry said in an email sent to AFP.

The exhibit had been due to close June 30. The museum said it would keep cooperating. The FBI did not immediately reply to AFP's request for comment.

The paintings were done on scavenged pieces of cardboard and were largely unseen until this exhibit began in February, The New York Times reported in a story on Friday's confiscation of the works.

The Times said that it had learned last month that one of the works was painted on the back of a shipping box that bore instructions to "Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here."

But the instructions were in a typeface that was not used until 1994, six years after the artist died, the paper said, quoting a designer who worked for Federal Express.

The FBI seized the paintings with a warrant based on a 41-page affidavit that said the agency's probe had unearthed "false information related to the alleged prior ownership of the paintings", the Times said.

The probe also revealed "attempts to sell the paintings using false provenance, and bank records show possible solicitation of investment in artwork that is not authentic".

The owners of the works as well as the director of the museum, Aaron De Groft, say Basquiat made these paintings in 1982 and sold them to a now deceased television screenwriter named Thad Mumford for $5,000, the Times said. They said Mumford put them in a storage unit and apparently forgot about them for 30 years.

But in the affidavit related to the search warrant, FBI special agent Elizabeth Rivas states that she interviewed Mumford in 2014 and learned that "Mumford never purchased Basquiat artwork and was unaware of any Basquiat artwork being in his storage locker", the Times said.

If authentic the paintings would be worth around $100 million, it added, quoting art experts.

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