Orlando Museum of Art Sues Former Director for Staging Fake Basquiat Exhibition

The Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) is suing its former director Aaron De Groft for his role in promoting a show filled with fake Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. Heroes and Monsters opened in February of 2022 and closed in roughly four months time, after the FBI raided OMA’s galleries, finding 25 fake Basquiat artworks. The institution promptly fired De Groft and hired a task force to help alleviate the damage caused to OMA’s reputation, along with investigating any and all parties who assisted in the faux-exhibition. According to the OMA lawsuit, the institution seeks to “hold responsible the people the museum believes knowingly misrepresented the works’ authenticity and provenance.”

Heroes and Monsters was initially promoted as a show featuring a suite of “lost” works that Basquiat had created in 1982 while out in Los Angeles for a show that was to go on view at Gagosian. At least, that is the story that was being purported by art dealer William Force, along with his accomplice and financial backer, Leo Mangan, according to an Artnet report. As the story goes, the paintings were then sold to a screenwriter named Thad Mumford, who kept them in storage until 2012, which he had to auction off for not being able to meet payments. Force and Mangan spent years trying to galvanize interest from collectors and institutions, even going as far as hiring an art history professor and Basquiat expert to help fabricate their story.

Photo of former OMA director Aaron De Groft. Courtesy of the Orlando Museum of Art.

Eventually, De Groft was brought on board who would be guaranteed a “significant cut of the proceeds of the anticipated multimillion-dollar sale,” the lawsuit continues, adding that the former director allegedly “hijacked OMA’s resources, subverted OMA’s mission, and permanently damaged OMA’s longstanding reputation as a premier local nonprofit organization.”

When investigating the forged paintings, the task force noted that one of the Basquiat paintings was created on a cardboard box featuring a FedEx logo, which wasn’t introduced by the shipping company until 1994. In an email sent by De Groft to Tennessee lawyer Thomas Dossett, known as Titian, the former director demanded 30 percent of the fake Basquiat sales, adding that he would “retire with Maseratis and Ferraris.”

In an interview with the New York Times, De Groft “categorically denied” asking for a cut, adding: “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 catalog and everything else. But that was to go to the museum, not to me.”

De Groft still maintains that the Basquiat artworks are real.

In somewhat related matters, the British Museum has fired a veteran curator for allegedly stealing rare artifacts.
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