The museum director at the heart of an ongoing saga involving Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings of disputed authenticity is now attempting to clear his name. Aaron De Groft, former head of the Orlando Museum of Art, is now countersuing the institution for allegedly making him the “scapegoat” in the fallout from its 2022 Heroes and Monsters exhibition. “I’m going to war,” De Groft told Observer.
The follow-up to the museum’s show of twenty-five questionable Basquiat paintings has involved an FBI raid, typography analysis, fiery emails and multiple lawsuits. De Groft, who lost his job amid the scandal, has since been sued by his former employer for fraud, conspiracy and breach of contract and fiduciary duty.
“I don’t know what they were thinking, that I was just going to take this and roll over? No way,” said De Groft, who still maintains that the exhibited works are authentic Basquiats. “It’s been extremely, extremely difficult. And I didn’t do anything wrong.”
After overseeing the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary, De Groft was announced as executive director of the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) in 2020. “I was hired to reinvigorate a mediocre place in advance of the 100th anniversary of the museum,” he said. Staging a blockbuster show of never-before-seen Basquiat works could have cemented his professional legacy, but his tenure at OMA was instead immortalized in June of the following year when all twenty-five paintings were seized by the FBI. “I was out of the country,” said the ex-director, who asserts he was in Italy when he received the call that the works were being hauled out of the museum. A few days later, he was fired.
The co-owners of the paintings claimed the works were painted by Basquiat in 1982 and purchased by screenwriter Thaddeus Mumford, who then held them in a storage locker. But the late Mumford stated that he never purchased any such works, according to an affidavit from the FBI, which had been investigating the collection since 2013. It also noted that the cardboard canvas of one of the paintings contained a typeface created in 1994, several years after the artist’s death. However, De Groft claims “two forensic reports” found the typography used dates back to the 1970s.
The FBI affidavit additionally cited communications between De Groft and art historian Jordana Moore Saggese, who was paid to write reports about the paintings’ authenticity. “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,” wrote De Groft in an email to Saggese after she asked that her name not be associated with the exhibition. The former director claims the exchange was part of a larger argument between the two. “I basically got fed up, it was an academic dispute,” he said. “I was wrong to have taken that tone.”
In response, OMA assembled a task force to review its policies as part of a reputation management initiative. But the damage was done—in January of this year, Orlando Museum of Art was placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), the nation’s top accrediting body for art institutions. Shortly afterward, the saga took a turn when Michael Barzman, a Los Angeles-based auctioneer, agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his role in establishing the paintings’ provenance.
Michael Barzman’s role in the OMA scandal
Revealing he created between twenty and thirty fake Basquiat paintings, Barzman claimed he made up the Mumford story and marketed them as authentic. Ahead of Barzman’s sentencing, De Groft argued in court documents that the auctioneer, who admitted to creating nine additional forgeries, had given false statements about the works exhibited at OMA to minimize his sentence.
That same month, OMA sued De Groft and the co-owners of the Basquiat paintings for defrauding the museum for financial gain. “I couldn’t believe it,” said De Groft, who has been unable to find employment since his firing. “Things had kind of come along, I had a couple of interviews. And all of a sudden this thing hits.”
The museum claimed it spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars—and unwittingly staked its reputation—on exhibiting the now-admittedly fake paintings,” according to the complaint. It also alleged that upon the arrival of the artwork, OMA employees noticed one of the paintings contained an address for Michael Barzman, who would have been four years old and living elsewhere in 1982. According to De Groft, this label was added after the works were mailed by storage locker employees to Barzman.
De Groft also denies the museum’s allegations that he stood to benefit from an anticipated multimillion-dollar sale of the works. According to OMA’s complaint, De Groft sought similar opportunities with paintings purportedly by Titian and Jackson Pollock. “Let me sell these Basquiats and Pollock and then Titian is up next with a track record. Then I will retire with mazeratis and Ferraris” wrote De Groft in email to the owner of a Titian work, according to the complaint. But the former director asserts the email “doesn’t sound like me,” adding that the FBI, museum and its law firm had access to his personal email at the time. “And even if I did write it, mouthing off is not illegal.”
Aaron De Groft’s countersuit against the Orlando museum
While his co-defendants were reportedly engaged in settlement negotiations earlier this month, De Groft on November 14 fired back against the museum with a countersuit seeking damages in excess of $50,000. Alleging wrongful termination, defamation and breach of contract, the director claims he never had any financial agreement with the paintings’ owners to be compensated for OMA’s exhibition or a potential sale. Observer reached out to OMA, which declined to offer comment pending litigation.
De Groft also argues that Cynthia Brumback, then the chair of OMA’s board of trustees, was aware of a July 2021 FBI subpoena for records related to the exhibition but instructed De Groft and other museum employees not to inform the board. “As a result, the Board was completely in the dark about such an extraordinary, unprecedented and dangerous situation,” said De Groft in court filings. The former director additionally said that when he asked the FBI if he should continue with the exhibition in light of their subpoena, they gave him the green light. “We had no content or substance, just that they had to explore a tip.”
The museum’s claim is a “transparent public relations stunt intended to save face” and make De Groft a “scapegoat,” according to court documents, which described De Groft as having “created a spectacular exhibition” that garnered positive reviews and set attendance records.
To this day, De Groft maintains he has no questions regarding the authenticity of the exhibited paintings. “I’m fighting to get my reputation back, to be personally and professionally exonerated. And that’s going to happen.”