The facade of the Orlando Museum of Art during its Basquiat exhibition, which was raided by the FBI (photo via Flickr)

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’ co-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.” Hyperallergic has attempted to contact Brumback for comment via her company The Monogram Merchant, which sells personalized gifts.

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.” Barzman was sentenced to probation and community service, avoiding jail time.

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 paintings, 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.”

Reached for comment by Hyperallergic, Barzman’s attorney, Joel Koury, refuted the allegations in O’Donnell’s victim impact statement. “The fact is Mr. Barzman painted these works which were sold out of the trunk of a car in a parking lot for cash,” Koury said. “That has been confirmed by the United States District Court, the Department of Justice, and the FBI. If Mr. O’Donnell wants to pay Mr. Barzman for his time, Mr. Barzman would be happy to paint new pieces for him just like he painted the others as long as Mr. O’Donnell only markets them as Barzman and not Basquiat pieces.”

OMA’s initial lawsuit claims that the museum suffered defamation and financial damages as a result of hosting the exhibition. Notably, the American Alliance of Museums put the institution on probation, a form of sanction that could impact its ability to secure loans for exhibitions. “OMA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — and unwittingly staked its reputation— on exhibiting the now-admittedly fake paintings,” reads the museum’s complaint. “Consequently, cleaning up the aftermath created by the Defendants has cost OMA even more.”

The Orlando Sentinel reported earlier this week that the OMA and defendants were negotiating a potential lawsuit settlement. The museum has declined to comment on this matter.

Editor’s note 11/17/23 11:30am EST: This article has been updated with comment from Joel Koury.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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