On Monday, the Orlando Museum of Art filed a lawsuit against its former director Aaron De Groft, accusing him of attempting to profit from exhibiting fake paintings by Jean-Michael Basquiat.
The mixed-media paintings were billed as newly discovered Basquiats, and are now thought to have been inauthentic. According to the lawsuit, first reported by the New York Times on Tuesday, the five co-owners of these works had promised De Groft a cut of the proceeds if they sold.
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The works, De Groft and the paintings’ owners claimed, were made while Basquiat was living and working in Los Angeles around 1982 and had been forgotten in a storage unit.
Questions of their authenticity began to surface, however, shortly after their debut. A brand expert, for instance, told the Times that the FedEx typeface featured on a piece of cardboard was not used by the company until 1994—six years after the artist’s death.
An interview with the purported original owner of the paintings, as part of the FBI affidavit, also swore he had never purchased work by Basquiat.
The suit claims that De Groft leveraged the museum’s reputation to legitimize and increase the value of the fake paintings to benefit his own interests. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The museum is seeking an unspecified sum in damages for fraud, conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract.
“O.M.A. spent hundreds of thousands of dollars—and unwittingly staked its reputation—on exhibiting the now-admittedly fake paintings. Consequently, cleaning up the aftermath created by the defendants has cost O.M.A. even more,” reads the lawsuit filed in Florida’s circuit court.
The lawsuit “seeks to hold responsible the people the museum believes knowingly misrepresented the works’ authenticity and provenance,” said the museum’s current board chair, Mark Elliott, in a statement.
This is the latest development related to the Basquiat show. Last year, following an FBI raid on the museum and the confiscation of the paintings, the museum fired De Groft, who has a history of “rediscovering” artworks and who was subsequently placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums.
In a plea deal earlier this year, Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman admitted to making the fake Basquiat paintings.
De Groft’s emails and text messages, which appear to reference future sale of the paintings, are included in the court papers. De Groft and two co-owners of the works, Pierce O’Donnell and Leo Mangan, have said that Barzman is lying.
The museum alleges that De Groft was also seeking to legitimize the provenances of other works by Titian and Jackson Pollock with which he is associated in the court documents.
De Groft, according to the lawsuit, agreed to show the Basquiats before seeing them in person and only viewed them three months prior to the exhibition’s opening. Additionally, De Groft dismissed concerns raised by staff.
Though the museum alleges that De Groft withheld information of the FBI investigation from the full board, the board’s then-chairwoman Cynthia Brumback had known and reportedly did not disclose the information. Instead, she directed staff to De Groft.
ARTnews has reached out to De Groft for comment.