Trustees of a Florida art gallery are suing its former director, claiming he conspired to cash in on the exhibition and sale of fake paintings purportedly by the neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Aaron De Groft hoped to pocket tens of millions of dollars in commissions from auction of the works after “legitimizing” them during a 2022 show he arranged at the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA), according to the lawsuit filed in central Florida on Monday and reported by the New York Times.
The exhibition, Heroes and Monsters, featured 25 paintings billed as previously unseen works by Basquiat, the troubled Andy Warhol protégé who died of a heroin overdose in 1988, aged 27.
The show closed after FBI agents raided the museum in June 2022, having received a tip that the works were fakes.
The scam was exposed when a consultant spotted that FedEx labeling on the back of one work used a typeface not introduced until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death. In April 2023, a Californian storage unit auctioneer admitted creating the works by slapping paint on offcuts of cardboard in as little as five minutes, to mimic Basquiat’s style.
The new lawsuit alleges De Groft was an integral part of the scam, demanding a 30% cut of sales in an email to the paintings’ owners that claimed they could sell for up to $200m each.
“You all could not do this without me,” De Groft allegedly wrote, insisting his “expertise and access” was needed for a scheme that also involved the auction of works by Jackson Pollock and the 16th-century Italian painter Titian.
“I know you will do the math,” De Groft allegedly added. “I will retire with mazeratis [sic] and Ferraris.”
De Groft was fired by the museum five days after the FBI raid. The Guardian was unable to reach him for comment. Asked by the Times if he had a financial arrangement with the owners of any of the works he said: “I categorically deny it.
“They said, more sort of casually, ‘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.”
The OMA had been largely silent on the affair, until filing the lawsuit. It claims unspecified damages for fraud, conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract. It also claims the museum’s reputation was severely damaged by an episode it calls “stranger than fiction”.
The suit adds: “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 museum was placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), one of the most prominent such groups.
“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 says.
The episode also caused internal turmoil. As well as De Groft’s dismissal, several trustees and the board chair Cynthia Brumback left. A new chair, Mark Elliott, was appointed in August last year.
In a statement, the museum said it was working with the AAM to reverse its probationary status and expected “to remain in good standing”.
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