The Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) on August 14 filed suit against former director Aaron De Groft on the grounds that he destroyed the institution’s reputation by knowingly exhibiting fake Jean-Michel Basquiat works with the intent of legitimizing them and selling them for his own profit. Also named in the suit are five co-owners of the paintings, who are alleged to have recruited De Groft to the counterfeit conspiracy. De Groft, who is named in the filing as having committed fraud, conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract, is additionally accused of seeking to sell works of questionable provenance by Titian and Jackson Pollock.
The suit stems from an FBI investigation, spurred by a 2022 New York Times article, into a 2022 OMA exhibition of twenty-five works purported to be by famed neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Following the raid of the show by the Bureau’s Art Crimes Unit, the works were discovered to have been inauthentic, at least one rendered on the back of a FedEx box bearing a typeface not in use by the shipper until years after the artist’s 1988 death. A Los Angeles–based auctioneer earlier this spring admitted to playing a significant role in the forgery, hiring an artist to create the works, which he accomplished in a maximum of thirty minutes apiece, sometimes finishing a painting in as little as five minutes.
The 359-page filing includes numerous exhibits as well as a comprehensive timeline supported by correspondence. The following 2022 email, from De Groft to the owner of a Titian that was slated to go on view at the museum, and reprinted in the New York Times, is thought to be especially damning:
New York Times and Forbes here on Wednesday. This is all part of the plan of exhibiting and selling masterpieces. You all could not to do this without me. Face it. If we sell thii or s $100 million I need 30 percent. I have a high end LA lAwyer who I I worki f with to sell these $200 million BasquiIats and another $200 million Pollock. I can do this [redacted] You boys need to o P sun up for my expertise and access. I know you will do th math. One more dollar than the day before is a good. Let’s not get greedy. 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.
When reached by the paper regarding the missive, De Groft asserted that the “30 percent” referred to a “casually” planned gift to the OMA from himself and the alleged cohort of grifters to “repay the hundreds of thousands of dollars the museum spent on insurance, shipping, framing, publishing the catalog and everything else.”
The museum is seeking an unspecified sum in damages.