Vibrant paintings on cardboard said to be by the artist were found in the storage unit of a Hollywood screenwriter. Will a museum show resolve questions about their authenticity — or raise new ones?
A report by Brett Sokol for The New York Times.
It seems like a story too good to be true, and for some in the art world, it is. Last weekend, 25 Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings were publicly unveiled at the Orlando Museum of Art before several thousand V.I.P.s. All of the paintings were said by the museum to have been created in late 1982 while Basquiat, 22, was living and working out of a studio space beneath Larry Gagosian’s home in Venice, Calif., preparing fresh canvases for a show at the art dealer’s Los Angeles gallery.
According to the Orlando museum director and chief executive, Aaron De Groft, the vibrant artworks — layers of mixed media painted and drawn onto slabs of scavenged cardboard ranging in size from a 10-inch square featuring one of the artist’s iconic crowns to a nearly five-foot-high disembodied head — were sold by Basquiat directly to the television screenwriter Thad Mumford. The price? A quick $5,000 in cash — about $14,000 today — paid without Gagosian’s knowledge.
The 25 artworks then disappeared for three decades, the museum said, only resurfacing in 2012 after Mumford failed to pay the bill on his Los Angeles storage unit, and its contents — the Basquiats tucked in amid baseball memorabilia and TV industry ephemera — were auctioned off. William Force, a treasure hunting “picker,” and Lee Mangin, his financial backer, who both scour small auctions for mislabeled items, saw photos of the colorful cardboards and eventually snagged the lot — for about $15,000.
Mangin provided receipts of the purchase and recounted the thrill of the hunt: “It’s sort of a deep hook that goes inside of you,” he said, likening it to being an art world Indiana Jones digging for lost artifacts. It certainly sounds like a tale straight out of Hollywood, or perhaps a script by the Emmy Award-winning Mumford. Indeed, Gagosian, in a response to this reporter about the 1982 creation of these Basquiats, said he “finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely.” Gagosian’s concerns were echoed by several curators known to write widely on Basquiat’s work, who have greeted the Orlando museum’s show with a stony public silence.
De Groft, the OMA director, bristled 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.
These include a 2017 forensic investigation by the handwriting expert James Blanco which identified the signatures that appear on many of the paintings as being Basquiat’s; a 2017 analysis by the University of Maryland associate professor of art Jordana Moore Saggese, author of “Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art,” in which she too attributed the paintings to Basquiat; and signed 2018-19 statements from the late curator Diego Cortez, an early supporter of the artist and founding member of his estate’s now-dissolved authentication committee, which declared each of the paintings to be genuine Basquiats. In light of the imprimatur Cortez’s name carries with historians, his certifications were accompanied by photographs showing the curator mid-signature.
But the foremost proof in De Groft’s mind was a short poem by Mumford in 1982 commemorating the artworks’ creation and the meeting that the owners say occurred between Basquiat, then an artist on the rise, and Mumford, then one of the few Black screenwriters working within network TV and riding high as a producer and writer for the top-rated “M*A*S*H.”
Lines from the poem seem to refer both to Mumford’s ’70s work voicing a “Dr. Thad” for “Sesame Street,” his upcoming script for the “M*A*S*H” series finale, the “25 paintings bringing riches,” and the two men’s shared spirit as “no longer outsiders, Industry insiders golden crowns receiving … We film, we write, we film, we paint.”
It is said to have been written and typed up by Mumford, then initialed in oilstick by Basquiat (and confirmed as genuine by Blanco). The poem was not Mumford’s storage locker contents, according to Mangin, but was handed to him by Mumford in 2012. After buying the paintings, Mangin said he and Force tracked down the screenwriter, who told them over lunch how he had bought the Basquiats in 1982 as an investment on the recommendation of a friend.
“The poem is almost like a receipt, it refers to the works, it refers to the inscriptions in the works, it refers to the time,” De Groft said. “I’ve absolutely no doubt.”
Before his death in 1988 from a drug overdose, Basquiat is believed to have made approximately 2,100 artworks, from small drawings to a paint-adorned refrigerator door, according to the Brooklyn Museum. Could these slices of cardboard have been among them? While it’s certainly difficult to imagine Gagosian, living just one floor above Basquiat and keeping close tabs on his studio progress, or Basquiat’s gallery-employed studio assistant and de facto chauffeur, John Seed, not noticing the creation and sale of 25 detailed paintings on canvas, those painted on cardboard are more easily concealable.
Seed has written about driving Basquiat to an appointment with a doctor whose medical bill was paid with drawings. And as noted by Phoebe Hoban in her 1998 biography “Basquiat,” “Anybody with the right attitude and the right amount of money could purchase something from the painter, who was constantly in need of cash to support his various habits.”
Gagosian himself conceded to Hoban that his own accounting methods with Basquiat were hardly traditional: “It was the way he chose to be paid, in cash, or in barter, or with clothes, or like he’d say ‘Well, buy my girlfriend a trip to Paris.’”
More than just professional reputations now rest on the question of these paintings’ true background. The value of Basquiat’s work has soared: In 2017 one of his paintings sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s — the current auction high for an American artwork. If the 25 Mumford-purchased paintings are authenticated as actual Basquiats, Putnam Fine Art and Antique Appraisals puts their total worth at close to $100 million.
An official verdict on this whodunit by the Basquiat estate is now impossible — it closed its authentication committee in 2012 in the aftermath of a lawsuit over Basquiat artworks initially deemed fake. (Amid similar time-consuming and expensive litigation, the Andy Warhol estate closed its own authentication committee that same year.) Yet without such a stamp of estate approval, or an established provenance, major auction houses and heavyweight art dealers are reluctant to handle such works. Despite several years of being quietly shopped around the secondary art market, these Basquiats have to date found no takers, according to the owners. The Orlando museum showing could help dispel that market wariness, lending them a new air of institutional legitimacy.
Sotheby’s declined to comment on the authenticity of these paintings. Several art world professionals were similarly gun-shy, citing the experience of the estate’s authentication committee and their fear that publicly weighing in could embroil them in a lawsuit with the paintings’ current owners. One dealer who personally worked with Basquiat and saw photographs of the paintings in the Orlando museum said, “the way Basquiat places elements in the composition has an interior logic which is missing in these images.”
In addition to Force and Mangin, partial ownership of the artworks now lies with one of Los Angeles’s most prominent trial lawyers, Pierce O’Donnell, famed for successful litigation against a veritable who’s who of the city’s glitterati, from the actor Brad Pitt (on behalf of his ex-wife Angelina Jolie) to the former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
O’Donnell told The New York Times that he purchased an interest in six of the 25 paintings after Force, who had read about his authentication efforts on behalf of a disputed Jackson Pollock painting, approached him for help with the Basquiats. It was news coverage of this same Pollock legal standoff that also led the OMA’s De Groft to contact O’Donnell and then offer to exhibit the Basquiats. If Force and Mangin are seeking a payday, and De Groft hopes for a blockbuster exhibition, O’Donnell seems driven by the courtroom-like drama of it all.
“I treated these paintings as a client,” the lawyer explained. “I believe I could win this case nine and a half out of ten times with a jury. I’m not bragging. I’m just saying the evidence is compelling.” He cited the various reports done on the paintings, and, like De Groft, the Mumford-penned and Basquiat-signed poem that definitively sealed his case. “That poem is so revealing, and Basquiat’s initials are on it,” he continued. “It’s autobiographical and you can’t make up this stuff, you just can’t.”
Except that sometimes you can. As early as 1994, seemingly beautifully executed Basquiats later deemed to be well-made fakes — accompanied by bogus letters of provenance — were in circulation. And just this past July the F.B.I. arrested a man in New York City it said was trying to sell artworks he falsely claimed were collaborations between Basquiat and Keith Haring, also complete with forged letters of provenance.
O’Donnell had no patience for such comparisons. “You would have to have a big old conspiracy that would rival the Jan. 6 insurrection for these things not to be authentic,” he scoffed, adding that it just didn’t make sense. “A forger who wanted to make big hay over Basquiat would paint one extraordinary Basquiat, or maybe two or three, all large on canvas. He wouldn’t just go out and get cardboard from a supermarket or liquor store and create 25 paintings.”
What of Mumford’s family, who only learned of the museum’s exhibition of “The Thaddeus Mumford Jr. Venice Collection” from this reporter? “It’s all very strange,” said Jeffrey Mumford, Thad’s younger brother, a Guggenheim fellowship-winning classical composer and music professor at Lorain County Community College, near Cleveland. Not only did Thad never once mention to him buying the Basquiats, “he was someone who didn’t really go to art galleries very often, was often intimidated by the idea of going to them because he felt he had to have a degree in art in order to appreciate the work.”
Moreover, if Thad had ever wanted to discuss a promising new artist, he could have spoken with Jeffrey’s wife, Donna Coleman, an accomplished painter who had lived in New York City at the same time Basquiat was first making a name for himself. Coleman, in an interview, recalled walking in downtown Manhattan in 1978 “when I would see his SAMO graffiti on the wall fresh from the day before.”
Coleman, who helped settle Thad’s estate upon his death in 2018, said it seemed believable to her that he had simply stopped making payments on his storage unit “because he didn’t care about these works, or he didn’t recognize their worth, or maybe he was tipped off that they were not real.” The last years leading up to his death “were very, very fraught,” she said. His career in television had essentially dried up, he was severely depressed and in poor health, and “he was just letting go of a lot of things.” But if by 2012 he no longer cared about the paintings, then why did he hold onto a poem about that same artist for all those years? “It does seem odd, doesn’t it?” Coleman mused.
One clue to the paintings’ authenticity may lie with the cardboard on which Basquiat would have applied his layers of paint, crayon, and oilstick. Mangin said he consulted several paper experts to confirm its age, but was told that the composition of cardboard from the 1980s was impossible to differentiate from that of recent years. “Nobody had an answer,” Mangin explained. “Cardboard is cardboard.”
Yet flip over one of the works and you’ll find that it was painted on the back of a shipping box with a clearly visible company imprint: “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here.” According to Lindon Leader, an independent brand expert consulted by The Times, who was shown a photo of the cardboard, the typeface in the imprint was not used by Federal Express before 1994. He should know: that was the year he personally redesigned the company’s logo and its typefaces while working as senior design director at the Landor Associates advertising firm.
“It appears to be set in the Univers 67 Bold Condensed,” Leader said of the label’s distinctive purplish font. In 1982, “They were not using Univers at that time.”
So the piece of cardboard could not have been produced until 12 years after Basquiat supposedly painted on it and six years after the artist’s death.
According to a person close to the Orlando museum, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to reveal internal discussions, its curatorial staff expressed their concern to De Groft that the FedEx text did not seem to be from 1982. “This show raised red flags for them,” the person said, but the director brushed off their concerns.
Asked about his staff’s reaction this week, De Groft insisted, “The cardboard is legit.” He added, “I believe deeply these are authentic Basquiats. I can’t answer the question on FedEx, there’s an anomaly there.” But he said the evidence provided by the artworks’ owners — from the Basquiat-signed poem to the Cortez report — was credible.
Yet as O’Donnell, the lawyer, has himself argued in a catalog essay for Orlando’s Basquiat exhibition, one small discovery can undermine a seemingly rock solid claim: “Over my four decades in the trenches, cases have been won or lost based on a single piece of evidence.” The key to winning, he concludes, is “finding a ‘smoking gun’ document buried in millions of pages of records. If this sounds like Perry Mason, it is.”
Asked this week if the FedEx-imprinted cardboard was that veritable “smoking gun,” O’Donnell remained unshaken. “If there’s a question about one painting, it doesn’t cast doubt on all the other ones.” He called the typography question “a subject of expert debate”— one he almost seemed to relish and was confident he would win. “If I presented all this evidence to a jury— including this thing about FedEx — I have no doubt how it would come out.”