Last year, the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) displayed a collection of previously unseen paintings purportedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat in a now infamous exhibition titled Heroes and Monsters. Suspicion mounted, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) issued a subpoena, and on June 24, 2022, the FBI raided the museum and seized the 25 works. Five days later, the institution ousted director Aaron De Groft, who had vigorously vouched for the paintings’ authenticity throughout the ordeal.
Now, a lawsuit alleges that De Groft was more than an optimistic believer. OMA is suing its former director, citing alleged evidence that he planned to take a cut of the paintings’ eventual sale and claiming that his actions “permanently damaged” the museum’s reputation.
OMA filed its civil lawsuit in Florida circuit court on Monday, August 15. The museum, represented by lawyer Ginny Childs of Akerman LLP, is seeking damages in excess of $50,000 from De Groft and seven alleged conspiring parties, one of whom confessed to his role earlier this year. Hyperallergic was unable to reach De Groft for comment. The New York Times, which first reported the story, contacted De Groft at his Florida home; when asked if he had a commission arrangement with the owners, the former director reportedly said, “I categorically deny it.”
The 359-page complaint relays both the schemers’ extravagant provenance tale and the real story of how the paintings ended up in the museum. According to the lawsuit, Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman and an accomplice concocted the scheme in 2012 with the plan to list the fakes on eBay. The complaint alleges that since the paintings’ creation, the suspected conspirators had been on a “quest” to make them legitimate enough to sell and that they knew a museum exhibition could do just that. The lawsuit states that the paintings’ owners “easily persuaded” De Groft to join the conspiracy by promising him a cut of the future multimillion-dollar sales. (The most expensive Basquiat painting sold publicly fetched $110.5 million in 2017.)
The museum also alleges that De Groft was scheming to exhibit two other paintings of questionable provenance — one attributed to Jackson Pollock and the other to Titian — with the same plan.
While the lawsuit is strewn with damning evidence and juicy email correspondences, one message stands out. In February 2022, De Groft allegedly sent a 2am typo-ridden email to the owner of the purported Titian painting, writing: “This is all part of the plan of exhibiting and selling masterpieces. You all could not do this without me. Face it.”
In the same email, De Groft allegedly demands a 30% cut of the earnings and writes that he knows a “high-end LA lawyer” who could sell the fabricated Basquiats and Pollocks for a combined sum of $400 million. “Then I will retire with mazeratis [sic] and Ferraris,” he writes, according to the lawsuit.
The suspected conspirators’ long-winded origin story for the 25 fakes posited that Basquiat sold them in 1982 to television producer Thaddeus Mumford, Jr., who put the works in storage. (Mumford signed a legally binding 2017 declaration, reviewed by the New York Times, that he never met with the artist and did not buy any of his paintings.) According to the tale, the contents of the storage unit were sold 30 years later to Barzman. Barzman purportedly placed the paintings in a dumpster, where they were found and sold to the current owners. In April 2023, Barzman admitted to lying to the FBI about his role in the conspiracy.
The smoking gun was a March 2022 report in which a former FedEx worker’s stated that the typeface on one of the painting’s cardboard surface hadn’t been designed until 1994, six years after Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. Other discrepancies abound, such as the fact that a shipping label addressed to Barzman is underneath a layer of paint. Basquiat was supposed to have created the works in 1982 — when Barzman was only four years old.
The lawsuit alleges that OMA staffers “sounded the alarm” about the paintings’ shady provenance, but De Groft stormed ahead nonetheless. The lengthy complaint also outlines scholars’ skepticism about the works.
“OMA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — and unwittingly staked its reputation — on exhibiting the now-admittedly fake paintings,” the lawsuit reads. “Consequently, cleaning up the aftermath created by the Defendants has cost OMA even more.” The complaint recalls that the museum was placed on probation by the regulatory body American Alliance of Museums and “its 99-year legacy was shattered.”
“The story of how the paintings ended up on the walls of OMA is a truth stranger than fiction,” states the complaint, and recounts a defendant’s statement that the saga was a “concatenation of unlikely events.”