Museum Sues Ex-Director Over Fake Basquiats

Orlando Museum of Art says damage from fraud scheme may be irreparable
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 16, 2023 10:00 AM CDT
Museum: Fake Basquiat Exhibit Was an Inside Job
Law enforcement personnel work outside the Orlando Museum of Art in Orlando, Florida, on June 24, 2022.   (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel via AP)

The Orlando Museum of Art has admitted its "99-year legacy was shattered" when it was found to be exhibiting fake paintings attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Now it wants justice. In a lawsuit filed Monday, OMA "seeks to hold responsible the people the Museum believes knowingly misrepresented the works' authenticity and provenance," including its former director Aaron De Groft, the chair of the museum's board of trustees says in a statement, per WESH. The FBI seized 25 paintings attributed to Basquiat from the museum last year. Auctioneer Michael Barzman later pleaded guilty to federal charges, admitting he and a co-conspirator created the paintings in 2012 before passing them off as true Basquiats and selling them to cover Barzman's medical bills.

But the lawsuit claims De Groft, who arranged the exhibit, also sought to profit from the scheme, using the museum to legitimize the works whose owners had promised him "a significant cut of the proceeds" from their future sale. As true Basquiats, the paintings were thought to be worth $100 million. In a 2022 email cited in the lawsuit, De Groft allegedly asks for 30% of the sale proceeds, per the New York Times. He also discusses efforts to sell paintings by Titian and Jackson Pollock whose provenance were reportedly in doubt. "Let me sell these Basquiats and Pollock and then Titian is up next with a track record. Then I will retire with mazeratis [sic] and Ferraris," he wrote, per the Times.

The suit—which also names five co-owners of the fake paintings—claims De Groft ignored "one red flag after another," dismissed museum employees' own concerns about the paintings' authenticity, and concealed the FBI investigation for almost a year. "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 suit adds. De Groft, fired days after the FBI raid, denies there was an agreement in which he would profit from the sale of any works, per the Times. He and some of the paintings' owners—accused here of fraud, conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract—maintain the works are genuine Basquiats and claim Barzman is lying. (More Jean-Michel Basquiat stories.)

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