In February, the New York Times covered a new exhibition of artwork at the Orlando Museum of Art attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat. In it, the author questioned if the mixed media works by the former Neo-expressionist graffiti artist from the 1980s were actually authentic. Three months later, the Times broke the story that the FBI had been investigating that same art, which is now no longer on display. At present, the collection of 25 paintings on cardboard are estimated to be worth $100 million. Of course, if they’re counterfeit, they’re only worth the cardboard they’re painted on.
The artwork is collectively owned by a group of investors, one of whom is Pierce O’Donnell, the attorney to the stars who represented Angelina Jolie during her divorce from Brad Pitt, as well as Amber Heard in her split from Johnny Depp. Thus far, O’Donnell has exuded confidence and compared the situation to a courtroom drama: “Over my four decades in the trenches, cases have been won or lost based on a single piece of evidence.” Following that same logic, O’Donnell questioned where the “smoking gun” is to prove the paintings aren’t authentic.
In other cases of fraudulent Basquiat artworks, the smoking guns have been rather easy to locate — and there have been quite a number of cases. In the last five years alone, we’ve seen criminal investigations into alleged Basquiat con artists and counterfeiters in Miami, New York, L.A., Mexico, Australia and France. Together, they paint a larger picture (pun unavoidable) of how such crime seems to permeate the fine art world so well. On one hand, the forgery of modern artwork can be easier to fabricate because tools for dating the canvas or paint are rendered moot. But more importantly, proof of authenticity is all about the appearance of provenance, or a story of ownership history — and criminals can be very convincing storytellers.
Take, for example, Philip Righter, an L.A.-based con man who pleaded guilty in 2020 to “wire fraud, tax fraud and identity theft” related to his attempts to pass off fake Basquiat artwork as legit. In his plea agreement, Righter confessed he ordered stamps that appeared as if they were authentic stamps from the Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Between 2016 and 2018, Righter ran a scam based on a story of proximity, and one that was already loosely based on truth. Specifically, “for pieces he claimed were by Basquiat, he also made fake gallery labels so as to make them appear to have been bought from New York’s Annina Nosei Gallery, which helped make Basquiat famous during the 1980s.”
Then there was Angel Pereda, a 49-year-old from Mexico who was recently a candidate for mayor in the city of San Andrés Cholula, located near the Great Pyramid of Cholula. After Pereda lost the mayoral race, he was arrested by the FBI in New York City on charges of wire fraud and allegedly attempting to move counterfeit paintings by Basquiat and Keith Haring. According to the FBI, Pereda also falsified the provenance of the artworks with a story. “On one occasion, Pereda attempted to facilitate the sale of a painting purportedly by Basquiat, which Pereda referred to as ‘Glory Boys Kingdom.’ When told by another individual that a particular false provenance had been detected as fraudulent, Pereda created and sent to an individual in New York new fraudulent provenances, so that the painting could be sold for millions of dollars.”
Other times, the story can be extremely simple. Case in point: Last month, Miami art dealer Daniel Elie Bouaziz was raided by the FBI and charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and selling inauthentic artwork marketed as original pieces by “Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Banksy and Roy Lichtenstein,” among others. In the case of a fake Basquiat he allegedly bought online for $495 and then sold to an undercover FBI agent for a cool $12 million, Bouaziz assured the agent that the provenance was the “father of Basquiat” so that “there is not really a conversation about it.”
Still, even with a convincing backstory, the artwork itself also must pass the sniff test. In 2020, a collection of sketches in French wine country were attributed to Basquiat. And they were presented with a story, too: Dominique Viano, an artist from Burgundy, claimed he acquired the artworks from “various collectors who in turn had acquired them from Danny Rosen, an American actor and friend of Basquiat.” There were two problems –– for one, the story was easily refuted; Rosen’s sister Lisa happens to be an art restoration expert and she denied the origin story, saying “the provenance is ridiculous,” since her brother never owned the forged drawings. The second problem was the quality, as Lisa also said, “They look awful.”
To that end, storytellers have been able to take great liberty in recent years because provenance has also proven to be a real problem for authentication. In 2012, the Basquiat estate disbanded the official authentication committee due to the costly nature of litigation as repeated fights over provenance were costing numerous artists’ estates sizable legal fees. Therefore, the art world counts on the word of handwriting analysts, art curators and art preservation experts — some of whom can be swayed, intimidated or even paid off.
In the case of the $100 million Basquiats the FBI is currently investigating, many experts were brought in by the group of owners seeking to establish their provenance and authenticity. For instance, O’Donnell paid $25,000 to Jordana Saggesse, author of Reading Basquiat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, for a report on the 25 disputed paintings. She claims that her 2017 report determined that nine of the 25 paintings weren’t attributable to Basquiat and that the owners’ group left that part of her report out of their catalog for the collection. Saggesse even claimed in an interview that while she was working on the report, the owners attempted to sway what she published. “The more that they started to push back at me, the more I began to question their motives,” she said.
Certainly, counterfeiting isn’t unique to Basquiat — if anything, scams and money laundering are, per some experts, a massive issue in the art world at large. In fact, in the early 2010s, Mexico passed a law that required information on the buyers and sellers and clear-cut amounts paid for artwork. The result: “The market cratered, as sales dipped 70 percent in less than a year.” Even the International Monetary Fund has published warnings about the rampant money laundering in the art world. More recently, the U.S. Senate investigated claims that Russian billionaires use the art world to avoid sanctions and criminal oversight. The Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also released a report that noted, “Secrecy, anonymity and a lack of regulation create an environment ripe for laundering money and evading sanctions.”
But within this larger realm of fine art and finer theft, the name “Basquiat,” along with “Warhol” and “Haring,” have become synonymous with wealth. Because apart from all the feasible stories of lost masterpieces and paintings unearthed in storage or passed between friends over decades, these artists used modern materials — the kind that can be bought at a hardware store or art-supply shop — that have made forgeries all too tempting for resourceful criminals.
That said, it doesn’t mean those materials can’t also take the shape of a smoking gun. Lindon Leader, an independent brand expert consulted by the Times, examined the collection of 25 paintings and found that the cardboard they were painted on was from FedEx. And on that cardboard is a label that wasn’t used by FedEx until six years after Basquiat died.
O’Donnell’s confidence, however, remains unshaken. To him, the FedEx label isn’t a smoking gun, it’s just another “subject of expert debate.”