The Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) is suing its former director Aaron De Groft the wake of a devastating scandal that saw the FBI raid its galleries, confiscating 25 purported Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings later proven to be forgeries.
The fake Basquiats were part of the exhibition “Heroes and Monsters,” which opened at the museum in February 2022 and shuttered amid controversy that June, ahead of a planned stop in Italy. In the wake of the raid, the museum fired De Groft and formed a task force to steer the institution through the crisis.
“OMA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars—and unwittingly staked its reputation—on exhibiting the now-admittedly fake paintings,” read the museum’s complaint. “Consequently, cleaning up the aftermath created by the defendants has cost OMA even more. OMA was placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums and its 99-year legacy was shattered.”
The OMA, which is represented by Ginny Childs of Akerman LLP, filed suit Monday in the Circuit Court of Orange County, Florida. The firm has been working with the institution on an ongoing basis to conduct an inquiry into the organization of the exhibition, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
The lawsuit “seeks to hold responsible the people the museum believes knowingly misrepresented the works’ authenticity and provenance,” read a statement from the museum. “Given that litigation has commenced, the OMA looks forward to presenting its case to a jury.”
In April, Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman pleaded guilty to having lied to the FBI about creating the Basquiat forgeries with the assistance of an accomplice identified only as J.F.
The show was promoted as a major rediscovery of lost works by the acclaimed street artist, whose work has fetched more than $100 million at auction. The story told by art dealer William Force and his financial backer, Leo Mangan, was that Basquiat made the paintings in 1982 in Los Angeles while preparing for a show there with Gagosian.
The artist was said to have sold them all to the late screenwriter Thad Mumford, who kept them in a storage locker until 2012, when he fell behind on payments and its contents were auctioned off. Force later acquired them for just $15,000. (Barzman’s business dealt in the contents of abandoned storage units.)
Force and Mangan spent years trying to drum up interest in their cache of never-before-seen Basquiats, enlisting a handwriting expert, an art history professor, and even a noted expert in the artist’s work to help bolster their claims of authenticity.
The two “easily persuaded De Groft to join their conspiracy by promising De Groft a significant cut of the proceeds of the anticipated multimillion-dollar sale. De Groft quickly jettisoned his professional, ethical, and fiduciary duties to OMA and agreed to exhibit the paintings before ever seeing them in person,” the complaint alleged. As a result, De Groft and his co-defendants “hijacked OMA’s resources, subverted OMA’s mission, and permanently damaged OMA’s longstanding reputation as a premier local nonprofit organization.”
De Groft did not respond to requests for comment from Midnight Publishing Group News by press time.
According to the complaint, De Groft convened a special museum board meeting in April, shortly after he was hired, announcing his intention to make the forgeries the centerpiece of the institution’s centennial celebrations that fall—organizing the show in just a few short months and upending the previously planned exhibition schedule.
For Force and Mangan, a show at the Orlando Museum of Art was a coup. The complaint said that “De Groft was the critical missing piece of their scheme to profit from the fraudulent paintings after legitimizing them through a museum exhibition”—but many experts remained skeptical about the authenticity of their so-called find. (According to the complaint, the OMA’s neighbor, the Mennello Museum of American Art, had previously turned down an offer to exhibit the work due to concerns the paintings were forgeries.)
There was already compelling evidence that the works weren’t the real deal. For one thing, a cardboard box that was painted on in one work featured a FedEx logo that wasn’t introduced until 1994. And when the museum received the works in October 2021, they noticed one of the paintings obscured a shipping label addressed to Barzman—who would have been four years old and living at another address in 1982.
Mumford also denied having anything to do with the Basquiats, even though Force and Mangan offered to use some of the proceeds of the works’ eventual sale to finance a television show for him to produce. Before he died in 2018, Mumford signed an FBI affidavit stating that “at no time in the 1980s or at any other time did I meet with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and at no time did I acquire or purchase any paintings by him.”
O’Donnell, Force, and Mangan are also named as parties in the suit. But the museum’s main target appears to be De Groft, who stands accused of having threatened the job security of anyone who raised red flags about the exhibition, as well as having failed to disclose the FBI’s investigation of the paintings to the OMA board for nearly a year, until the story broke in the New York Times.
De Groft also appears to have made a habit of using his position to provide a veneer of credibility to suspect artworks by displaying them at his institutions in an effort to get a collector to buy them.
The lawsuit mentioned a purported Titian painting De Groft showed in 2006 at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary when he was director there, as well as a painting said to be by Jackson Pollock, known as the Comstock Pollock or Pink Spring, which belonged to O’Donnell and was a contender for another show at the OMA had De Groft not pivoted to Basquiat.
The complaint includes several emails from De Groft, including one in which he talks about selling the questionable Titian, Pollock, and Basquiat works “to build the lost art resume” and another in which he warns O’Donnell that if the works do sell, Force and Mangan “need to share.” He also speculated that Jay-Z could be a potential buyer, or that “the Chinese, or Arabs or the Russians will. Either way you are golden my friend.”
In another email, De Groft asks the owner of a purported Titian (identified in media reports as Tennessee lawyer Thomas Dossett) for 30 percent of the proceeds from any sale, after which “I will retire with mazeratis [sic] and Ferraris.”
Additionally, there are three belligerent emails De Groft allegedly sent to Jordana Moore Saggese, a University of Maryland art history professor who raised concerns after being paid $60,000 to assess the forged Basquiat paintings. “Stop being holier than thou,” he wrote, calling Sagggese “a nobody” and boasting that “I have way more books than you do.”
The former museum director told the New York Times that he “categorically den[ied]” any financial arrangement with the owners of the forgeries. “The only thing that I remember that they said, more sort of casually, was that maybe we can make a gift to the museum at some point in the future to help repay the hundreds of thousands of dollars the museum spent on insurance, shipping, framing, publishing the catalogue and everything else. But that was to go to the museum, not to me.”
De Groft, O’Donnell, and Mangan still maintain that the works are authentic.
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