Orlando Museum of Art sues ex-director, others over fake Basquiat paintings scandal | Orlando Area News | Orlando

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The Orlando Museum of Art is suing former director Aaron De Groft and others over the controversial exhibition Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Thaddeus Mumford Jr. Venice Collection, which purported to display lost works by the iconic artist.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in Orange County and addresses the alleged fraud in authenticity and origin of the pieces, claiming De Groft aimed to profit off the fake exhibit.

It also says De Groft claimed the owners of the paintings promised him a cut of the proceeds ahead of what they anticipated to be a multimillion-dollar sale of the artworks.

The scandal unfolded last year, when the museum was subject to a June 2022 FBI raid during which the artworks were seized from the gallery as part of a continuing investigation. California auctioneer Michael Barzman admitted he helped create some of the pieces himself and pleaded guilty in the federal investigation.

Prior to the raid (but well into the investigation), the New York Times published a bombshell report questioning the provenance of the art. Former OMA director De Groft remained adamant that the works were legitimate. But the NYT published a second report about an ongoing FBI Art Crimes investigation — with subpoenas issued — around the artworks. De Groft was fired shortly after the raid took place.

The museum was also placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums.

The museum has since shared very little about the details of the investigation and subsequent legal action. This week’s lawsuit, however, contains emails and staff interviews as evidence against De Groft and the owners of the “Basquiat” works, including misspelling-ridden messages from De Groft boasting about publicity for the exhibition.

“New York Times and Forbes here on Wednesday. This is all part of the plan of exhibiting and selling masterpieces. You all could not do this without me. Face it,” de Groft wrote, reported by Orlando Sentinel. “If we sell thii or s $100 million I need 30 percent.”

The lawsuit also states the museum experienced severe reputational damage as a result of the incident.

“OMA 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 even more,” the lawsuit reads, reported by The Guardian.

In addition to De Groft’s firing, several trustees and board chair Cynthia Brumback walked away from the museum. Mark Elliot was appointed as OMA’s new board chair last August.

“It will take OMA decades of work to rebuild its standing, recover donors and repair the damage defendants have caused, if doing so is even possible,” the lawsuit claims.

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