In Orlando, 25 Mysterious Basquiats Come Under the Magnifying Glass

“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?” Brett Sokol reports 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 in 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. [. . .]

For full article and photos, see https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/16/arts/design/basquiat-painting-orlando-mumford-museum.html

[Photo above from Orlando Museum of Art: From Thad Mumford’s storage unit, said to be by Basquiat, “Untitled (Self-portrait with his cowboy hat and wearing Leonardo da Vinci’s flying suit),” from 1982 on corrugated cardboard.]

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