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Central Florida Art Museum Files Lawsuit Over Forged Basquiat Paintings Scandal

In a startling turn of events, the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA), located in central Florida, has filed a lawsuit against its former executive director, Aaron De Groft, and others involved in what has been described as a scheme to profit from the sale of forged Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. The lawsuit was filed on Monday in a state court and seeks undisclosed damages for allegations of fraud, breach of contract, and conspiracy.

Tattered Reputation and Consequences

The lawsuit reveals that the 99-year-old OMA suffered a severe blow to its reputation as a result of the FBI raid that occurred last year over an exhibit showcasing the now-acknowledged counterfeit Basquiat paintings. The aftermath of the controversy led the museum to be placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums, tarnishing its standing in the art community.

The entrance to an exhibit by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen at the Orlando Museum of Art, June 1, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. On Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, the central Florida art museum which was raided last year by the FBI over an exhibit of what turned out to be forged Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings filed suit against its former executive director and others, claiming they were part of a plan to profit from the sale of the fake artwork. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
The entrance to an exhibit by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen at the Orlando Museum of Art. Courtesy:  Photo/John Raoux

“OMA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — and unwittingly staked its reputation — on exhibiting the now admittedly fake paintings,” the lawsuit states. “Consequently, cleaning up the aftermath created by the defendants has cost OMA even more.”

Basquiat’s Legacy and Artwork Authenticity

Jean-Michel Basquiat, a prominent figure in the Neo-expressionism movement of the 1980s, gained widespread recognition for his artistic contributions in New York City. The Orlando Museum of Art took the initiative to showcase over two dozen artworks reportedly discovered in an old storage locker, decades after Basquiat’s untimely death in 1988 due to a drug overdose at the age of 27.

A Deep Dive into Basquiat's Materials and Techniques | MyArtBroker | Article
A Deep Dive into Basquiat’s Materials and Techniques | MyArtBroker | Courtesy: Article

However, questions surrounding the authenticity of the exhibited artworks began to arise almost immediately following their reported discovery in 2012. Experts noted inconsistencies, such as the presence of FedEx typeface in the artwork, which wasn’t introduced until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s demise. These discrepancies cast doubt on the legitimacy of the pieces, as pointed out in the federal warrant issued during the museum raid.

Additionally, Thad Mumford, a television writer and the purported owner of the storage locker, contradicted the claims about the Basquiat artworks. He informed investigators that he had never possessed any Basquiat art, and the pieces were not present in the storage unit during his last visit. Mumford passed away in 2018.

Auctioneer’s Guilty Plea

Earlier this year, former Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman admitted guilt to federal charges. Barzman confessed to creating the counterfeit artwork and falsely attributing it to Basquiat. His admission shed light on the extensive deception that had taken place, damaging the credibility of the exhibit.

Former CEO’s Defense

Throughout the controversy, former OMA CEO Aaron De Groft staunchly defended the legitimacy of the exhibited artwork. It remains to be seen how the legal proceedings will unfold for De Groft and the other individuals named in the lawsuit. As of now, the court docket in Orlando does not list an attorney for De Groft.

The lawsuit filed by the Orlando Museum of Art marks a significant development in the ongoing saga of the counterfeit Basquiat paintings, shedding light on the art world’s vulnerability to deception and its lasting impact on institutions striving to uphold artistic integrity.

Feature Image Courtesy: Vanity Fair

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