Professor involved in controversial Basquiats seized by FBI speaks out – ARTnews.com

Jordana Moore Saggese, an art history professor hired to provide her professional appraisal of 27 paintings with a disputed attribution to Jean-Michel Basquiat, has released a statement denying she ever claimed the works were legit.

“These claims are false,” she wrote in a statement released by The Baltimore Sun Sunday: “Your publication caused me considerable reputational damage and emotional distress. Nowhere in the reports have I indicated the positive or definitive attribution to Basquiat of anything [Orlando Museum of Art] is working.”

The works in question were featured in the Orlando Museum of Art’s “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” exhibition and were seized in an FBI raid in late June. The FBI’s Art Crime Team had been investigating the authenticity of the works since their alleged discovery in a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012. The investigation revealed “false information regarding alleged past ownership of the paintings,” according to a 41-page article. affidavit for the search warrant obtained by the New York Times.

Saggese, currently a professor at the University of Maryland and a well-known Basquiat expert, said she was commissioned by the collection’s owners in 2017 to provide her professional opinion on the works. To sweeten the deal, Saggese wrote, the attorneys told her that “after the artwork sold for millions of dollars, [he] would fund grants.” She agreed to preview the works with photos.

“I immediately rejected nine works,” Saggese wrote. “I came to the conclusion that 11 works could be by Basquiat just from a review of photographs,” she wrote.

Saggese’s report, while positive towards a body of work, was careful to stress that its findings were preliminary. She never personally examined the paintings.

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According to the collection’s owners, Basquiat allegedly sold the works directly to television screenwriter Thaddeus Quentin Mumford Jr., who kept them in a storage unit for 25 years until he failed to pay the unit’s rent and its contents were auctioned off in 2012.

The collection was purchased by art and antiques dealer William Force and his financier Lee Mangin for around $15,000. A share of six of the 25 paintings was purchased by Los Angeles trial attorney Pierce O’Donnell.

Mumford refused to corroborate the story and signed an affidavit to the FBI saying that not only had he never purchased any of Basquiat’s paintings, but he had also never met the artist. Mumford died in 2018.

To Saggese’s surprise, the text of her report was made available New York Times and also published in the OMA exhibition catalogue.

When Saggese tried to have her name removed from exhibit materials, “OMA’s then-director Aaron De Groft bullied and insulted me and even tried to blackmail me,” she wrote.

In an email received from the New York TimesDe Groft threatened to reveal how much she was paid for her report.

“You want us to put out that you have $60,000 to write that? OK then. Keep your mouth shut. you took the money Stop being holier than you,” he wrote. “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

De Groft was fired from the OMA days after the FBI crackdown in June.

“I want to set the record straight,” she wrote.

Read Saggese’s full statement below:

For several months, my name and reputation have been dragged into the public scandal surrounding the discredited Basquiat artworks previously displayed at the Orlando Museum of Art (“OMA”) as part of the canceled exhibition “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Thaddeus Mumford Jr. Venice Collection” (the “Exhibit”).

I am extremely disturbed by news reports of my alleged involvement in the exhibition and in particular the false claims that I have attributed all 25 OMA works to Basquiat. These allegations are false and their publication caused me significant reputational damage and emotional distress.

I want to set the record straight. In 2017, I was hired by an unscrupulous attorney, Pierce O’Donnell (on behalf of a group of unnamed art collectors) to analyze 27 potential Basquiat works dubbed the “Basquiat Venice Collection.” Mr. O’Donnell represented himself as counsel for the owners of the works. I trusted and relied on Mr. O’Donnell as the independent representative of the owners. He did not disclose that he was one of the owners and that he would benefit financially from the sale of the collection.

I was not commissioned to research the provenance of the works, nor was I asked to provide an expert opinion. Instead, I have made available to collectors two confidential and preliminary reports that are expressly not to be used or relied upon by any third party (including for authentication purposes) and which may not be distributed without my prior written consent. In these reports I immediately rejected 9 works. I concluded that 11 works “might be” by Basquiat based solely on a review of the photographs, reserving the right to change my mind following personal inspection, which was never provided. Eventually I determined that possibly 7 works ‘could be’ by him, with the caveat that I relied on evidence from other experts on manuscript and material/condition and a ‘provenance insert’ from Mr O’Donnell. Both reports also clarified that they are “in no way intended to replace a certificate of authenticity from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s estate”.

In 2019, Mr. O’Donnell and Dr. De Groft (the recently sacked director and CEO of OMA) to participate in an exhibition of the Basquiat Venice Collection. I declined. I also reiterated that my reports were confidential.

In February 2022 (just before the opening of the exhibition) I contacted Mr. O’Donnell and Dr. De Groft to make sure they didn’t share the reports or misrepresent my opinion. I wrote that I was “in no way authorized to authenticate unknown works by Jean-Michel Basquiat”, I wanted “no involvement in them [the Exhibit]’ and I didn’t want ‘to be associated with any advertisement for the[] works for financial gain or otherwise.” Both have denied sharing my reports, misrepresenting my opinion, or using my name in connection with the exhibition (despite rumors to the contrary). Neither was true.

Instead, Mr. O’Donnell misleadingly quoted from my confidential reports in the OMA exhibition catalog to imply that I had concluded that all OMA works were by Basquiat in an attempt to legitimize the exhibition. He even went so far as to provide incomplete and misleading excerpts to the New York Times. Meanwhile, when I contacted Dr. De Groft wrote to reiterate my request that my name not be used in connection with the exhibition, he bullied and insulted me and even tried to blackmail me.

Using my reports to attribute the works to Basquiat is not only a blatant breach of trust, but cynically misrepresents my support of the Basquiat Venice Collection. Nowhere in the reports do I have a positive or definitive attribution of any of the OMA works to Basquiat given, as has been falsely claimed. Any further publication suggesting that I have attributed the OMA works to Basquiat is also defamatory and I demand that such publication cease immediately. I will not comment further on this subject. All legal and reasonable rights and remedies are expressly reserved.

Yours sincerely, Dr. Jordana Moore Saggese

Updated 7/11/22 3:44pm: This article has been updated to include Saggese’s full statement.

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