Aaron De Groft, the former executive director of the Orlando Museum of Art, who was ousted over a now-notorious show of allegedly forged Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, has filed a countersuit against the institution, claiming wrongful termination and defamation.
Per the Associated Press, De Groft filed court papers in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday that claimed the former board chairwoman of the Orlando Museum of Art, Cynthia Brumback, and outside legal team for the museum had greenlit the exhibition, even after being dealt an FBI subpoena in July 2021 for any museum records related to the paintings. The show, titled “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat”, opened in early 2022, but closed abruptly that June following an FBI raid of the premises.
De Groft claims that he is being positioned as a scapegoat for the considerable fallout of the headline-grabbing raid, in which all 25 purported Basquiat paintings were seized. Further, he has claimed that the museum’s lawsuit against him is a public relations strategy. According to the court filings, the outside attorneys told De Groft and Brumback that the museum would not be jeopardized by cancelling the show.
“These two statements fortified Defendant’s belief that the 25 paintings were authentic Basquiats,” De Groft wrote, as quoted by AP.
He is seeking over $50,000 for wrongful termination, defamation, and breach of contract.
In August, the museum filed a fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, and conspiracy lawsuit against De Groft and the group who collectively owned a series of paintings contentiously attributed to Basquiat, claiming it suffered a severe financial and reputation hit due to their actions. The suit claims that De Groft leveraged the museum’s reputation to legitimize and increase the value of the fake paintings for a later profit. The museum has not specified the sum in damages it is seeking.
The museum’s lawsuit “seeks to hold responsible the people the museum believes knowingly misrepresented the works’ authenticity and provenance,” said the museum’s current board chair, Mark Elliott, in a statement.
De Groft and the paintings’ owners introduced the works to the public in February of 2022, saying that they were created around 1982 by Basquiat while he lived and worked in Los Angeles. According to their story, the works were sold directly to a private collector, who forgot them in a storage unit for decades. The FBI affidavit, however, provided evidence to the contrary and, in a plea deal earlier this year, Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman admitted to making the fake Basquiat paintings. O’Donnell and De Groft maintain that Barzman lied in his plea deal to avoid jail time.
Earlier this week, the Orlando Sentinel reported that the museum and defendants were negotiating a potential settlement in its case against the defendants. The court filing indicated that the museum will not pursue a jury trial if a settlement can be reached.
ARTnews has reached out to both parties for comment, but has yet to recieve a response.