Aaron De Groft, the embattled former director of the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) who was fired and sued earlier this year for his alleged involvement in an exhibition of fake Basquiats, is counter-suing the Florida institution. In August, the museum filed a civil lawsuit against De Groft and the artworks’ owners, accusing the defendants of conspiring to exhibit the disputed paintings at the museum with the aim of boosting their value and later selling them for personal profit.
In a counterclaim filed November 14 and reviewed by Hyperallergic, De Groft calls the museum’s allegations “a damnable and demonstrable lie” devised by the board of trustees to “scapegoat” the former director for its own failings. He places the blame squarely on the museum’s former chairwoman, Cynthia Brumback, who De Groft claims approved the exhibition despite her knowledge of a July 2021 FBI subpoena requesting any records related to the works. Brumback resigned from the board last December, after a number of trustees reportedly complained that they had not been informed of the FBI investigation.
De Groft is now seeking over $50,000 in damages for alleged “wrongful termination” and “irreparable injury to his reputation.”
“I am ready to talk and going to war to get my good name back, my professional standing and personal and professional exoneration,” De Groft wrote in an email to Hyperallergic.
OMA declined to comment. In an earlier statement this spring, the museum said it “seeks to hold responsible the people the Museum believes knowingly misrepresented the works’ authenticity and provenance.”
Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat opened in February 2022 and was on view for five months before the FBI raided the museum and seized all 25 works as part of a criminal investigation into their debated authenticity. The paintings, which were being publicly displayed for the first time, were ostensibly sourced from the storage unit of a Hollywood screenwriter who let them gather dust for three decades. But as far back as 2012, crucial evidence raised questions about the works’ provenance and legitimacy — such as a FedEx logo on the back of one of the paintings that a designer said dated to 1994, six years after Basquiat died. In April, Los Angeles-based former auctioneer Michael Barzman confessed to helping forge the paintings with the help of a co-conspirator known as J.F., claiming that they spent “a maximum of 30 minutes on each image and as little as five minutes on others.”
Defendants in the case, however, stand by the works’ authenticity. Pierce O’Donnell, a co-manager of the Basquiat Venice Collection Group which has an ownership stake in the seized works, not only defends the legitimacy of the works but also accuses Barzman of falsely confessing to forging them.
“There is no possible way that Barzman and his crony J.F. painted the 25 Basquiats,” O’Donnell says in a victim impact statement included in recent court filings. “Barzman was a storage locker scrounger and J.F. was a nightclub bouncer who reportedly sells Christmas trees for a living.”
OMA’s initial lawsuit claims significant reputation and financial damages to the museum as a result of its hosting the show. Notably, the American Alliance of Museums put the institution on probation, a form of sanction that could impact the OMA’s ability to secure loans for exhibitions. De Groft’s countersuit blames the museum’s former chairwoman, Cynthia Brumback, who De Groft claims approved the exhibition despite her knowledge of a July 2021 FBI subpoena requesting any records related to the works.
The Orlando Sentinel reported earlier this week that the OMA and defendants were negotiating a potential lawsuit settlement, though the museum has declined to comment on this matter.