Ex-CEO in Fake Basquiats Scandal Countersues Orlando Museum, Alleging Unjust Blame

Former Executive Director of Florida Museum Files Counterclaims Against Museum

ORLANDO, Fla. – In a recent development, a former executive director of a Florida museum, which was raided by the FBI last year over an exhibit featuring forged Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, has filed counterclaims against the museum. Aaron De Groft, the former CEO, alleges wrongful termination and defamation by the institution. This countersuit comes several months after the museum had sued De Groft and others involved in the scandal.

De Groft, in court papers filed in Orlando, Florida, stated that the board chairwoman and outside lawyers of the Orlando Museum of Art had approved the exhibit, even after the FBI had subpoenaed the museum’s records regarding the exhibit in July 2021. He further claims that he is being made a scapegoat and that the museum’s lawsuit against him was merely a public relations stunt to protect their reputation at his expense. De Groft was fired in June 2022 following the FBI raid.

According to De Groft, after reviewing documents and interviewing him and other staff members, the outside lawyers informed the executive director and chairwoman that there was no reason to cancel the exhibit. This conclusion was also supported by FBI investigators. In response, De Groft stated in court documents filed in state court, “These two statements fortified Defendant’s belief that the 25 paintings were authentic Basquiats.”

De Groft is seeking more than $50,000 in damages for wrongful termination, defamation, and breach of contract. An email was sent seeking comment from a spokeswoman for the Orlando Museum of Art, but no response has been received thus far.

In the museum’s lawsuit against De Groft and others, they allege fraud, breach of contract, and conspiracy. The institution claims that its reputation suffered greatly as a result of the scandal, and it was even placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, a renowned artist who lived and worked in New York City, achieved great success in the 1980s as part of the neo-Expressionism movement. The Orlando Museum of Art was the first institution to display over two dozen artworks claimed to have been found in an old storage locker decades after Basquiat’s death in 1988 from a drug overdose at the age of 27.

Questions about the authenticity of the artworks arose almost immediately after their reported discovery in 2012. The artwork was purportedly created in 1982, but experts noted discrepancies, such as the use of cardboard featuring a FedEx typeface that wasn’t introduced until 1994, several years after Basquiat’s passing, according to the federal warrant from the museum raid.

Furthermore, Thad Mumford, a television writer and the owner of the storage locker where the art was found, told investigators that he had never owned any Basquiat art and that the pieces were not in the unit when he last visited. Mumford passed away in 2018.

In April, former Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of making false statements to the FBI. Barzman admitted that he and an accomplice had created the fake artwork and falsely attributed the paintings to Basquiat.

This is an ongoing investigation, and further updates will be provided as the story unfolds.

Follow Mike Schneider on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MikeSchneiderAP.

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