No Heroes, Only Monsters: Fake Jean-Michel Basquiat Paintings Shown at the Orlando Museum of Art


It could not have been a more dramatic scene in my hometown, more suited for a made-for-TV movie than a fine-arts news story—a raid removing forgeries hung in a respected museum. On Friday, June 24, 2022, the FBI descended on the Orlando Museum of Art during operation hours, and dozens of agents swarmed through the entrance like black hornets, swooping into the Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford, Jr. Venice Collection show, removing framed art from the walls. The show was forced to close a week before it was officially slated to end on June 30.

Photo by Macbeth Studio, courtesy of the Orlando Museum of Art.

For months before the dramatic finale of the controversial show, questions swirled throughout the art world about the authenticity of the works in the exhibition. After seeing the show firsthand in early March, I was not impressed by some of the exhibit’s paintings, which did not have the complex layering Basquiat employed in his gritty cityscapes. The works I studied were all rendered on cardboard and ranged in scale from ten inches square to significant, framed-under-glass pieces five feet across.

As readers of this blog may recall, I ultimately questioned the authenticity of the works. Though I was dubious about the seemingly derivative paintings I saw, I marveled at (but did not write about) all the buzz the show earned in this provincial Florida city, a place more apt to get in a lather about a new ride at Disney World. But people were talking about this show. A lot. Many were inspired and impressed by an artist they had never heard of before. This is a town where it’s a big deal to pay $20 for a museum ticket. As a struggling Ph.D. student, $20 is not chump change for me, either. But on that fine spring Saturday, when I stepped into the OMA, the gift shop was doing brisk business, selling Basquiat pins, mugs, and slick-papered catalogs. The place was packed. The museum was turning a hefty profit.

Back in February, before the opening of Heroes & Monsters, the Orlando Museum’s director, Aaron De Groft, whose countenance calls to mind a used-car salesman, told the New York Times that the set of works was painted in 1982 and sold by Basquiat to screenwriter Thad Mumford for $5,000. Basquiat was purported to complete the paintings when he lived and worked on the grounds of art dealer Larry Gagosian’s home in Venice, California. However, Gagosian “finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely.”

Supposedly, Mumford stowed the works, and they languished for two decades in his storage unit. Finally, in 2012, when Mumford could not pay the rent on his unit, the contents were auctioned off with other personal items and bought by William Force and Lee Mangin for $15,000. Mumford later passed away in 2018.

Nonetheless, in his interview with the New York Times in February, De Groft insisted the works were real and mounted the exhibition despite experts’ misgivings: “I’ve absolutely no doubt these are Basquiats. My reputation is at stake as well.”

Ousted director of the Orlando Museum of Art, Aaron De Groft.
Photo: Orlando Sentinel

The authenticity of the works has always been under scrutiny, however. The debate has centered around stylistic deviations and one piece, Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II),which was painted on a FedEx box. According to the New York Times, investigators contend that the FedEx typeface logo on the reverse side of the work was not designed until years after Basquiat died.

Verso of Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II). In an article in the New York Times, the FedEx corporate typeface on verso of one of the works “was created in 1994, according to its designer, not 1982, as the paintings’ owners assert. This discrepancy has some questioning the authenticity of the paintings” (Brett Sokol). Photo: the New York Times.

And my own experience instilled doubts about if these were really Basquiat’s paintings. Ever since I visited the show, I’ve wondered why these were “lost” works. Why would Mumford store and forget some of the world’s most valuable art pieces? Why would Mumford, a struggling writer, abandon Basquiats in a storage unit and then default on the rent payments? Wouldn’t it have been prudent to sell the works and make millions of dollars in profit?

Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II), a painting the museum claimed to be by Basquiat, rendered in acrylic, wax crayon, and paint stick on the back of Federal
Express shipping material. Photo: the Orlando Museum of Art.

The empirical evidence of typefaces and the non-empirical issue of motivation are further complicated by the lack of any official Basquiat estate authentication committee, which formally disbanded in 2012 following a lawsuit. Before dissolving, the committee reviewed thousands of authentication claims.

On the other hand, before the Heroes & Monsters opened at the OMA, a few authorities did contend that, indeed, the exhibit’s pieces were authentic. These experts affirmed the works’ provenance, including curator Diego Cortez, who passed away in 2021. An early Basquiat supporter who sat on the since-dissolved authentication committee, Cortez signed statements in 2018–19 contending the exhibit’s works were real. Another authenticator, handwriting expert James Blanco, conducted a forensic investigation in 2017, declaring signatures on the paintings were genuine. Also in 2017, an art history professor, Dr. Jordana Moore Saggese, author of Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, confirmed that she believed some of the Mumford collection might be authentic; however, Saggese later attempted to distance herself from her original claims. 

Throughout this authentication period, though, the Justice Department was investigating the backroom dealings of the works’ owners. According to the New York Times—which obtained a copy of the affidavit—the investigation culminated in the Justice Department filing in federal court against the Orlando Museum in June 2022, securing a search warrant based on the two possible crimes of conspiracy and wire fraud.

The affidavit reveals that Saggese, the art history professor, was paid $60,000 for her work before she tried to walk back her authenticity assessment. In a missive to the OMA, she asked the museum to no longer associate her name with the exhibit. Director De Groft reportedly replied derisively via email, which sounds almost like a blackmail missive: “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. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

The 25 alleged Basquiat paintings were valued at $100 million (that is until their provenance was questioned). (Photo: Cate McGowan)

Other information in the affidavit is nothing short of breathtaking. And damning. It states that in 2017, one year before Mumford’s death, he signed a statement saying, “[A]t no time in the 1980s or at any other time did I meet with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and at no time did I acquire or purchase any paintings by him,” which calls into question the exhibition’s entire origin story. In the affidavit, Elizabeth Rivas, an FBI special agent who interviewed Mumford in 2014, states, “Mumford never purchased Basquiat artwork and was unaware of any Basquiat artwork being in his storage locker.” Rivas also reveals that the artwork’s owners promised Mumford a “10% percent interest in the net proceeds” if the works sold and thus “pressured him to sign documents.”

According to the New York Times, the affidavit indicates that, before the museum show, the paintings were quietly offered for sale several times, but they found no buyers. Investigators discovered “attempts to sell the paintings using false provenance, and bank records show possible solicitation of investment in artwork that is not authentic.” The exhibit is now locked up in FBI custody. The OMA has removed all traces of the show from their property—even the gift shop items have disappeared. And Aaron De Groft no longer works for the institution; he was removed from his position by the museum’s board a few days after the raid.

Though the exhibit did not impress me, I am stunned at the dramatic turn of events for one of this city’s cornerstone art institutions. Since De Groot’s firing, the board of trustees chair, Cynthia Brumback, has resigned, and the interim director quit after less than six weeks on the job. An August 2022 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel reports that the FBI served a subpoena to the board in July 2021, six months before the show opened, but De Groot and Brumback did not inform other trustees.

Do I feel duped? Sort of. My friend and I paid hard-earned money to attend Heroes & Monsters. Do I want a refund? Yes. And every person who visited that show should receive one. More importantly, I spent time, which cannot be refunded, peering at, pondering fake work, and investing my intellectual energy into analyzing the dreck I suspected.

Most importantly, who wants to see fake paintings? If we cannot trust the arbiters of the art world to tell us the truth and do the due diligence of authentication, we will not trust museums and will not invest in their cultural mission.

Cate McGowan is an essayist, poet, fiction writer, and author of two books—she won the Moon City Press Short Fiction Award for her debut short story collection, True Places Never Are; her debut novel, These Lowly Objects, appeared in 2020. Find out more about Cate at

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