The last Friday in June began like a normal summer day in sunny Orlando, Fla.: The weather was hot and sticky; obedient crowds filed into Disney World as if on a spiritual pilgrimage. At the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA), a much-hyped exhibition was in its final days.
Billed as a stash of previously unseen pieces by the late ’80s star Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose neo-expressionist paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars, the Heroes and Monsters show of 25 artworks was to be a splashy coup for the museum, a quiet regional institution unaccustomed to the national spotlight.
After all, Basquiat’s paintings are not only highly coveted, but his subversive start as a graffiti artist, his crossover appeal—Madonna dated him; Jay-Z rapped about owning his doodle-like work—and his death from a drug overdose at the age of 27 have made him a pop-culture icon. OMA had banked on the show to raise its profile, trumpeting the paintings in the media and developing fundraising opportunities, such as Basquiat’s 1982 Heroes and Monsters Ball, replete with a DJ, a GIF-machine booth and a live art demo.
But in the middle of that June day, a team of FBI agents arrived at OMA with a search warrant. Agents proceeded to pack up the entire contents of the exhibition, carting off the curated canvas contraband like so many sacks of heroin as ejected visitors gaped through the museum’s windows, straining to catch a glimpse of the action. The paintings—all 25 of them—were fake, the government alleged.
That an accredited museum, even a modest one, could get swept up in a major forgery investigation in 2022 might come as a shock to many, but suspect works have become so common that, just weeks earlier, a Palm Beach dealer had been charged with selling bogus Warhols, Lichtensteins, Banksys and yet more Basquiats from his galleries on tony Worth Avenue. As Chris McKeogh, an agent with the FBI’s Art Crime Team, tells Robb Report, “Whenever there’s a fraud scheme or fakes-and-forgeries ring, if you become aware of two or three, multiply by 10, at least.” If a forger is skilled, “they’ll make 20 or 50—or a thousand.”
The sheer ubiquity of shams has altered his thinking. “I’ve become skeptical whenever I see a new piece of art,” McKeogh adds. “I will assume that it’s fake until I can prove that it’s real. That speaks to just how many fake artworks are out there.”
And forgeries are but one type of big-dollar crime plaguing the art world with head-spinning frequency these days. Lucrative fraud schemes, systematic thefts and money-laundering cases have all roiled the field in recent years, and global authorities are cracking down on the trade of looted antiquities that spiked as wars in the Middle East raged.
In the past year alone, Inigo Philbrick, an up-and-coming contemporary-art dealer, was sentenced to seven years in federal prison after pleading guilty to an $86 million fraud, billionaire Michael Steinhardt sidestepped possible prosecution by agreeing to surrender at least 180 looted antiquities worth $70 million—and accepting a reputation-damning lifetime ban on acquiring any more relics—and Jean-Luc Martinez, until last year the director of no less vaunted an institution than the Louvre, was charged in France with complicity in an antiquities-trafficking case.
The reasons for the surge in high-profile cases may be both blatantly obvious—the astronomical amounts of money floating around the art world, the proliferation of websites selling art online, the lack of transparency or regulations on art transactions—and a bit more mysterious, or at least unique to the art world, with its idiosyncratic, unspoken code of conduct. Few among us would for a second consider buying a seven-figure house without a thorough inspection and a meticulously worded contract drawn up by our lawyer, yet multimillion-dollar artworks are routinely exchanged on the basis of nothing more than a handshake, or even a phone call. In the clubby art world, no one wants to risk offending a gatekeeper to prime works.
“You can have all the money in the world,” says Judd Grossman, a top litigator who specializes in art, “but if you’ve rocked the boat, if you’ve been too demanding, the gallery doesn’t have to sell it to you. People are more likely to go with the flow.”
Many bad actors are also acutely aware that art crimes are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Though banks have long been required to report clients’ suspicious activity, galleries and auction houses accustomed to looking the other way if, say, a client paid with a suitcase full of cash, have only recently begun to feel the heat. The Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 covers aspects of the art market, though regulations have not been finalized. Also contributing to the shroud of secrecy: Valuable art can be held and traded by offshore shell companies in free ports in places such as Geneva and Singapore to avoid taxes and other oversight.
Questions about the OMA “Basquiats” simmered for years before the very public FBI raid. The narrative the owners provided when shopping the paintings around—and which the museum parroted—presented their discovery as something of an Antiques Roadshow-on-steroids miracle: Basquiat, the story went, had painted the works on cardboard in 1982 while living in dealer Larry Gagosian’s basement and sold them directly to television screenwriter Thad Mumford (M*A*S*H, The Cosby Show) for $5,000, without Gagosian’s knowledge. Mumford locked them away in a storage unit for 30 years. When that bill went unpaid, the works were auctioned off in 2012. Two men, William Force and Lee Mangin, bought them for a song and, later joined in six of the works by prominent LA lawyer and investor Pierce O’Donnell, proceeded to commission experts to authenticate them. (The Basquiat estate, like many others, disbanded its authentication arm a decade ago because of expensive litigation from disgruntled art owners.)
One of those experts, though, has since challenged OMA’s representation of her evaluation. Jordana Moore Saggese, an associate professor of American art at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has written a book on the artist, declined an interview but shared a statement with Robb Report claiming that her review, for which she was reportedly paid $60,000, had been “confidential and tentative” and based exclusively on photographs. She also maintained that she had rejected nine of the works outright and said 11 “could be” and seven “may be” legitimate, though she required an in-person examination to be sure, which was never granted. (O’Donnell disputes Saggese’s account.) A New York Times investigation reported that the cardboard used for one of the works was printed with a FedEx typeface that was not in use until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death. As of press time, no criminal charges had been filed, and the works’ owners have stood by their authenticity.
In the decade since Force and Mangin acquired the pieces, they were known to be shopping the works around unsuccessfully, a sign that insiders were unconvinced. If Peter Brant, Steven Cohen or some other big shot hadn’t snapped any up, something must be fishy. Art adviser Todd Levin tells Robb Report he dismissed a group of them as impostors on the basis of the JPEGs he was sent. Years later, he was startled to read that OMA was devoting a show to these same “Basquiats” and flew to Orlando to see them in the flesh. “I walked in and looked at them and was like, ‘These are faker than fake,’ ” he recalls. “As I was leaving, I wrote a note” to the museum’s director and CEO, Aaron De Groft, expressing his concern, and left it at the front desk. When De Groft didn’t reply, Levin tried calling the museum, then posting his doubts on OMA’s social media, all to no avail. “There was radio silence. That’s when I got cross.” So he dropped a dime to the FBI. “They were aware of the situation,” Levin says, adding that he provided further information but cannot share details.
The FBI moved in before the show’s contents could be shipped to Italy for the second leg of the exhibition. Following the seizure, OMA released a statement proclaiming that it was a witness, not a target of any investigation. But the fallout was swift. Within days, De Groft was ousted, and the museum handed off the scandal’s press management to a crisis specialist, Theresa Collington, whose response to Robb Report inquiries was to remain silent; she did not reply to repeated emails and voicemails.
The bureau’s case reportedly includes an affidavit signed by Mumford before his death in 2018 disavowing the story and denying he’d met Basquiat or acquired paintings from him. Were an indictment to be handed down, the verdict might hinge on whether prosecutors could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the parties had invented a false history for the paintings, shopped them around with phony documentation and benefited financially from that deception, such as with museum funds.
Another quirk of fine art: Though counterfeiting currency is explicitly illegal, the act of copying an artwork or an artist’s style is not. At least some of the paintings at the heart of the Palm Beach gallery case, for instance, initially came to the market—legally—with the caveat that they were reproductions or “after” the artist in question, not the real deal. The gallerist, Daniel Elie Bouaziz, allegedly bought them for a pittance online, then omitted those essential details and dreamed up false provenances before selling them at a steep markup—one of them, to an undercover agent, for $12 million. Bouaziz has pleaded not guilty.
Even replicating the signature of an artist on a knockoff is not breaking any laws, per se, according to Jason Hernandez, the former assistant US attorney who prosecuted the infamous Knoedler Gallery case, in which one of the most venerable galleries in the United States sold dozens of forged canvases over the course of 17 years as works by Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell and other 20th-century greats. In reality, a Chinese math professor living in Queens painted them, though he has claimed ignorance that they’d be marketed as legit. (When authorities finally raided his garage studio, he had already hightailed it back to China, leaving behind such tidbits as an envelope labeled “Mark Rothko nails.”)
“If you just paint something in the style of a Pollock and you write ‘J. Pollock’ on it, you wouldn’t be committing a crime if someone said, ‘That looks great. I’ll give you $500,000 for it,’ because you haven’t really made a false representation—you haven’t said that ‘Pollock’ was by the famous artist,” says Hernandez, now a lawyer in private practice in Miami. “You haven’t said anything, as a matter of fact, and you wouldn’t have an obligation to say anything about the signature. Now, if a person came to you and said, ‘That looks great. Is that a genuine Pollock?’ and you said, ‘Yes,’ now you’ve committed fraud because you reasonably understand what they mean as, ‘Is this by the famous artist Jackson Pollock?’ and you know it wasn’t because you painted it. Then you would be committing a crime.”
Well, yes. But only if you went ahead and took that person’s money, that is.
Hernandez points to a bizarre situation that came to light in 2010, in which a Mississippi man by the name of Mark Landis was discovered to have painted scores of works in the disparate styles of several artists, many of them American Impressionists, and donated them to at least 50 museums over some 20 years, perhaps for the simple pleasure of seeing his work pass muster and hang alongside famous artists. Even after eventually being outed, he was so determined to keep up the ruse that he continued to gift paintings by using aliases such as a Jesuit priest. Landis has never faced prosecution.
“The reason why it wasn’t a crime is that he never got any money for it,” Hernandez explains. Landis neither asked for nor received a fee, nor, wisely, did he take a tax deduction. (The Feds sometimes nab fraudsters not for their root misdeed but for failing to declare the proceeds.)
“For it to be a crime, you have to have done it for financial gain. This guy just showed up, gave them a painting. They assumed it was by someone famous, or they were told it was by someone famous. We don’t put people in prison for that.”
Landis did not deprive the museums of funds, only their pride.
Predators know all too well that ego—and its attendant dread of public ridicule—can be a powerful deterrent to reporting art crimes. No one, particularly uber-successful sorts who indulge in big-ticket collecting, or museum professionals whose careers are built on confidently projecting expertise, wants to admit they’ve been had, whether with forgeries or financial shenanigans. Very often, though, victims are not some innocents who’ve never set foot in an auction room; they’re seasoned collectors, even museum trustees.
Take Michael Ovitz, an art-world fixture who has poured millions into top-notch examples of abstract expressionism, pop, minimalism and even Rembrandt etchings and has long held a prestigious spot on the board of the Museum of Modern Art. A cofounder of Hollywood powerhouse CAA, Ovitz is known for his savvy. Yet even he fell victim to an unscrupulous dealer, tripped up by the tendency of art-world denizens to trust each other.
About a decade ago, Ovitz consigned two Richard Prince works to Perry Rubenstein, who had owned a gallery in New York’s Chelsea, then moved it to LA, where it soon skidded into bankruptcy. He allegedly sold one of Ovitz’s Princes but withheld the funds and tried to sell the other below the minimum price Ovitz had set. The LA County district attorney’s office also accused him of selling another collector’s Takashi Murakami scroll to the renowned Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation but deflating the price when he paid the consigner, pocketing the six-figure difference. In 2017, Rubenstein pleaded no contest to two counts of grand theft by embezzlement and was sentenced to six months in prison. (Rubenstein, who expressed remorse and became an art adviser and writer after his release, died in July.)
Ovitz tells Robb Report that he was hesitant to report the dealer’s misconduct to the authorities. “Look, I didn’t want the Rubenstein publicity,” he explains. “I felt embarrassed by it. I felt stupid.”
Now he says he transacts, as a rule, only with “top, reputable people. I don’t deal in the fringes. Most of this stuff happens with people in the fringes, excluding Knoedler, which took down very heavy people. When I buy something from Larry [Gagosian], I wouldn’t think for a second that there’s anything wrong with it. I bought a piece of African sculpture from a dealer in Paris. I had it authenticated by someone in New York, and he told me it was a fake, and the guy gave me my money back. These are the kinds of people I deal with.”
Ovitz is also cautious to employ a proper contract up front when consigning a work for sale. “I won’t do it without paper anymore,” he says. “Let me rephrase that—with Gagosian or [Pace’s Marc] Glimcher or [David] Zwirner, I will do it. I won’t do it with someone that isn’t in business that way.”
He empathizes with Domenico De Sole, the chairman of Tom Ford International and former chairman of Sotheby’s who was hoodwinked into buying what turned out to be a fake Rothko from Knoedler. “Domenico De Sole is not stupid,” Ovitz says. “In his defense, if I was buying something from Knoedler [before the scandal], I wouldn’t think twice about it.”