Orlando Museum of Art boss is fired after FBI seized disputed Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings

The CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art has been fired days after an FBI raid that seized an exhibit of 25 disputed artworks that were attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Aaron De Groft was removed as director and CEO after the museum’s board of trustees met on Tuesday night, following the federal raid on Friday seizing the works in the ‘Heroes and Monsters’ exhibit.

The board said in a statement that it is ‘extremely concerned’ about the exhibition of 25 paintings whose authenticity has been challenged, as well as an ‘inappropriate’ email De Groft sent to an academic art expert.

In the email to the art expert, who had been hired by the owners of the paintings, De Groft urged her to ‘shut up’ after she expressed qualms about the exhibit and asked that her name not be used in promoting it, according to the FBI.

‘We have launched an official process to address these matters, as they are inconsistent with the values of this institution, our business standards, and our standards of conduct,’ said board chair Cynthia Brumback in the statement.

Aaron De Groft, CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art, has been fired days after an FBI raid that seized an exhibit of 25 disputed artworks that were attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat

Aaron De Groft, CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art, has been fired days after an FBI raid that seized an exhibit of 25 disputed artworks that were attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat

One of the works, titled 'Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II), pictured, was painted on a FedEx box not used by the company until six years after the painter died of a drug overdose

One of the works, titled ‘Untitled (Self-Portrait or Crown Face II), pictured, was painted on a FedEx box not used by the company until six years after the painter died of a drug overdose

Jean-Michel Basquiat, who lived and worked in New York City, found success in the 1980s as part of the Neo-expressionism movement. He died in 1988 at age 27

Jean-Michel Basquiat, who lived and worked in New York City, found success in the 1980s as part of the Neo-expressionism movement. He died in 1988 at age 27

The statement didn’t say if De Groft resigned under pressure or was fired, but museum employees told the New York Times that board meeting had ended with the decision to fire him.

De Groft didn’t respond Wednesday to an email message sent via LinkedIn.

If authentic the paintings would be worth around $100 million — but investigators have raised serious questions about their provenance, citing the fact that one of the works is painted on a FedEx box that was not produced until after Basquiat’s death.

Intentionally selling fake art is a federal crime. The owners of the paintings have previously said that they hoped to sell the works, and the Orlando exhibition would have offered a major boost in visibility and credibility.

According to a search warrant, federal art crimes investigators have been looking into the 25 paintings since shortly after their supposed discovery in 2012. The controversy intensified shortly after the Orlando exhibit opened in February.

Basquiat, who lived and worked in New York City, found success in the 1980s as part of the Neo-expressionism movement.

The Orlando Museum of Art was the first institution to display the pieces, which were said to have been found in an old storage locker years after Basquiat’s 1988 death from a drug overdose at age 27.

Entrance to an exhibit by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen at the Orlando Museum of Art. The FBI raided the museum on Friday and seized 25 disputed paintings

Entrance to an exhibit by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen at the Orlando Museum of Art. The FBI raided the museum on Friday and seized 25 disputed paintings

This 1982 untitled painting allegedly by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen on display at the Orlando Museum of Art prior to the raid

This 1982 untitled painting allegedly by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen on display at the Orlando Museum of Art prior to the raid

The FBI raided a Florida art museum on Friday (above) and seized more than two dozen paintings attributed to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat following questions about their authenticity

The FBI raided a Florida art museum on Friday (above) and seized more than two dozen paintings attributed to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat following questions about their authenticity

The 25 paintings were bought for about $15,000 by William Force, an art and antiques dealer, and Leo Mangan, a retired salesman, according to the Times.

Attorney Pierce O’Donnell later purchased an interest in six of the works and hired several experts to assess whether the paintings were genuine.

One of those experts — identified at ‘Expert-2’ by the FBI, but later named in the Times as University of Maryland associate professor Jordana Moore Saggese —  later contacted the museum to ask that her name not be associated with the exhibit.

Saggese had assessed the works as genuine in her 2017 analysis, but told De Groft she no longer wanted to be associated with promoting the works and would consider it defamatory if the museum continued to use her name, according to a search warrant released Friday.

De Groft urged her to ‘shut up,’ and he threatened to tell her employer that the painting’s owners paid her $60,000 to write a report about the pieces.

‘You want us to put out there that you got $60 grand to write this? OK then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou. You did this not me or anybody else,’ De Groft said in the email quoted in the search warrant.

‘Be quiet now is my best advice. These are real and legit. You know this. You are threatening the wrong people. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.’

Attorney Pierce O'Donnell (above) purchased an interest in six of the 25 works and hired several experts to assess whether the paintings were genuine

Attorney Pierce O’Donnell (above) purchased an interest in six of the 25 works and hired several experts to assess whether the paintings were genuine

An exhibition purportedly by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen on display at the Orlando Museum of Art prior to the FBI raid

An exhibition purportedly by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen on display at the Orlando Museum of Art prior to the FBI raid

Questions about the artworks’ authenticity arose almost immediately after their discovery.

The artwork was purportedly made in 1982, but experts have pointed out that the cardboard used in at least one of the pieces included FedEx typeface that wasn´t used until 1994, about six years after Basquiat died, according to the search warrant.

Los Angeles art dealer Larry Gagosian, who lived directly above Basquiat's studio when the paintings were allegedly created, said that he 'finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely'

Los Angeles art dealer Larry Gagosian, who lived directly above Basquiat’s studio when the paintings were allegedly created, said that he ‘finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely’

In addition, television writer Thad Mumford, the owner of the storage locker where the art was supposedly found, told investigators that he had never owned any Basquiat art and that the pieces were not in the unit the last time he had visited. Mumford died in 2018.

Los Angeles art dealer Larry Gagosian, who lived directly above Basquiat’s studio when the paintings were allegedly created, told Times that he ‘finds the scenario of the story highly unlikely.’

Gagosian said that the artist had been preparing works for his LA gallery at the time and that he kept close tabs on his studio progress, and would have known of their existence.

Basquiat’s assistant, John Seed, has also said that he did not notice the creation of the 25 paintings, some done on large sheets of canvas.

Gagosian is not the only art expert to doubt the works’ authenticities, with several curators known to specialize in Basquiat’s creations uncommonly hesitant to weigh in on the controversy. Sotheby’s and several art world professionals declined to comment on their authenticity.

De Groft has repeatedly insisted that the art was legitimate. ‘The cardboard is legit,’ he said in February. ‘I believe deeply these are authentic Basquiats. I can’t answer the question on FedEx, there’s an anomaly there.’

Basquiat, pictured with pop art icon Andy Warhol in 1985, rose to fame in the 1980s

Basquiat, pictured with pop art icon Andy Warhol in 1985, rose to fame in the 1980s

The museum says the artworks were sold to Hollywood screenwriter Thad Mumford for $5,000 by Basquiat in 1982. The institution asserts the works remained in an LA storage unit owned by Mumford (above) until 2012, when they were sold at auction. Mumford died in 2018

The museum says the artworks were sold to Hollywood screenwriter Thad Mumford for $5,000 by Basquiat in 1982. The institution asserts the works remained in an LA storage unit owned by Mumford (above) until 2012, when they were sold at auction. Mumford died in 2018

Before coming to Orlando in late 2020, De Groft was director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and deputy director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.

The Orlando exhibit was originally publicized to run through June 2023, but the museum later announced it was ending next week.

Orlando Museum of Art spokeswoman Emilia Bourmas-Fry said the art’s owners declined to extend the museum’s contract and were planning to send the works to Italy for exhibition.

‘Based on my training and experience, I believe that the significantly advanced date of the international departure of the Mumford Collection from OMA is to avoid further scrutiny of the provenance and authenticity of the works by the public and law enforcement,’ an FBI special agent wrote in the warrant request.

No criminal charges have been filed. Fry said last week that the museum was cooperating with the FBI.

‘It is important to note that we still have not been led to believe the Museum has been or is the subject of any investigation,’ Bourmas-Fry said. ‘We continue to see our involvement purely as a fact witness.’

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