> TELEPHONE US 212.355.5710

The Orlando Basquiats: Former Director Sues

November 17, 2023
An abstract, grafitti-like portrait showing a crowned head against a black background on a piece of cardboard

Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II), one of the Basquiat forgeries seized from the Orlando Museum of Art

Aaron de Groft, the disgraced former director of the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA), is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the museum accusing him of fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and conspiracy. On Tuesday, he countersued the museum for wrongful termination, defamation, and breach of contract.

For anyone unfamiliar with this ongoing saga, OMA fired Aaron de Groft as director in the wake of a scandal where the FBI raided the museum during an exhibition featuring twenty-five newly discovered works by the American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The works were seized since they were likely all forgeries. De Groft was fired and is being sued by OMA because there is evidence that he probably knew that the Basquiats were forgeries. Furthermore, documents indicate he had made a deal with the paintings’ owners in order to get a cut of the profits from any future sale in exchange for authenticating the paintings and having them exhibited in Orlando. According to De Groft’s countersuit, “There is not a kernel of truth to this absurd allegation.” Though he denies it, there is certainly a pattern of behavior that indicates otherwise. As I had written previously, this is likely not the first time De Groft has tried this scheme. Previously, he served as director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, he made it a habit of buying works for cheap at auction and then claiming them as rediscovered works by great masters. Once, he attributed a portrait to the Venetian master Titian, later pressuring the work’s owner to sell it and give him a cut of the proceeds, which sounds very similar to the allegations currently launched against him.

De Groft now claims he is being unfairly used as a scapegoat for the entire museum administration and that the museum’s board of trustees had let the Basquiat show go as planned even after receiving a subpoena from the FBI in July 2021, about a year before the raid took place. According to the countersuit, the museum’s board told De Groft and museum chairwoman Cynthia Brumback that they brought in outside counsel to deal with the FBI investigation. Furthermore, he asserts that should the case go to a jury trial, he could adequately prove that all of the seized Basquiat paintings are actually authentic. Doing so would prove that his firing was unjustified. However, with the evidence in favor of them being fakes already out and disseminated in the press, it would be an uphill battle for him.

Some news outlets reported that the museum and De Groft were in the middle of negotiating a settlement. However, that no longer seems to be the case. De Groft is seeking $50,000 from the museum over his firing. Consequently, he would also receive what he called “professional exoneration”. Of course, most people would see the writing on the wall. The jig is up, and there is nowhere else to go. But given De Groft’s history of getting away with this sort of stuff, it’s not surprising that his confidence seems high.