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The Orlando Basquiats: Former Director Sued

August 18, 2023

An abstract, grafitti-like painting on a piece of cardboard showing a man against a black background, a rainbow forming between his outstretched hands, and white next behind him.

Untitled (Boxer), one of the Orlando Basquiat forgeries

The Orlando Basquiat controversy started over a year ago. In June 2022, the FBI sent agents to the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) to investigate allegations that twenty-five works by the American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat were actually forgeries. There were also allegations that senior members of the museum administration helped cover this up. Since the story broke, I’ve written three different pieces on the subject, describing updates in the case. Since June 2022, the FBI has raided the museum and confiscated the supposed forgeries, OMA has fired its chairwoman and director, and federal prosecutors brought charges against a Los Angeles auctioneer for making false statements to the FBI concerning the case. It’s been four months since those charges, and now OMA’s disgraced former director, Aaron de Groft, will be a defendant in a new lawsuit brought by his former place of employment.

OMA filed a lawsuit against De Groft, alleging that he had conspired with the owners of the fake Basquiats. The plan was that De Groft would declare them authentic and receive a piece of the money made whenever the owners sold them. The museum administration alleges fraud, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, aiding and abetting, and conspiracy. They claim that De Groft “jettisoned his professional, ethical, and fiduciary duties to OMA and agreed to exhibit the paintings before ever seeing them in person.” In so doing, De Groft and the other conspirators “hijacked OMA’s resources, subverted OMA’s mission, and permanently damaged OMA’s longstanding reputation as a premier local nonprofit organization.” De Groft took advantage of the museum's reputation to give the paintings positive attributions and facilitate their future sale, for which the owners promised him part of the money.

OMA alleges that this is not their former director's first involvement in similar business dealings. Before becoming director of OMA, De Groft was director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. During his tenure there, one of the works displayed at the Muscarelle was Portrait of Federico, Duke of Mantua, a painting that De Groft positively attributed to the Venetian master Titian. Art historian Charles Hope, however, called the work “a feeble work unworthy of Titian”. Upon becoming executive director and CEO of OMA, he began to pressure the work's owner to sell it, admitting how he would “like to be [compensated]” for his positive attribution. He also tried to secure the alleged Titian as a loan for the OMA, which would have violated both OMA policies and guidelines set by the American Alliance of Museums. Though the Titian was the most newsworthy “rediscovery” De Groft made at the Muscarelle, it was not the only one. He did something similar in 2013 when he and the Muscarelle curator John Spike bought a painting at auction in Vienna. He later attributed it as an early Cézanne copy of a Tintoretto painting. That alleged Cézanne became one of the centerpieces of a Muscarelle exhibition called The Art & Science of Connoisseurship. Using this modus operandi, De Groft would buy unremarkable works at auction, attribute them as lost works by big-name artists, and then display them on the Muscarelle’s gallery walls. In The Art & Science of Connoisseurship, De Groft admitted that five exhibited paintings were purchased at auction and reattributed to Caracci, Rubens, Bronzino, and Reni. De Groft doubled the size of the Muscarelle’s collection this way.

De Groft was engaged in similar dealings surrounding a painting allegedly by Jackson Pollock known as Pink Spring. De Groft agreed to give a lecture about Pink Spring at OMA before exhibiting it there, hoping to add legitimacy to the claims that it’s a genuine Pollock. Pink Spring is co-owned by Los Angeles lawyer Pierce O’Donnell, who is also a co-owner of the fake Basquiats and a defendant in the lawsuit. De Groft revealed his nefarious deeds and motivations in a February 2022 email to the Titian owner, again pressuring them to sell the work and give him part of the proceeds. “You all could not to do this [sic] without me. Face it. […] I need 30 percent.” He explained his plan: “Let me sell these Basquiats and Pollock and then Titian is up next with a track record. Then I will retire with mazeratis [sic] and Ferraris.”

Disgusting. That’s what I first thought when I read these emails. It reminded me of someone else I wrote about not long ago: Silvano Vinceti, the self-styled art historian making grand claims about the Mona Lisa. I wrote about him, “Sitting around in the archives poring over manuscripts must not have been sexy enough, so Vinceti decided to make it sexy by pitching himself as a real-life Indiana Jones of some kind.” Like Vinceti, being an academic must not have been cool enough for De Groft. So instead, he took a museum director job and made it more like being an art dealer, ramping up the focus on making money. He did so at the expense of proper research, muddying the waters with grand claims of lost masterpieces rediscovered at auction. I’m sure we’ll all be eager to hear any further developments in this baffling saga in the coming months.