• Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Orlando Museum of Art Drops Legal Claims Against Owners of Fake Basquiats


Jan 19, 2024


The Orlando Museum of Art announced Friday that it was dismissing its legal claims of fraud and conspiracy against five co-owners of paintings who touted them as the creations of the art world legend Jean-Michel Basquiat and lent them for a 2022 exhibition.

In a statement, the museum’s board chairman, Mark Elliott, said that in an effort to cut its legal costs, the institution would focus its case solely on its former executive director, Aaron De Groft, whom he said had been responsible for “handpicking” the paintings and then “fast-tracking” them for exhibition.

The museum’s 2022 exhibition of the purported Basquiats came to an abrupt end that June with a raid by members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Art Crime Team, who seized the works off the museum’s walls. A Los Angeles auctioneer later admitted to the F.B.I. that he and an associate had themselves forged the paintings, some in as little as five minutes.

In its original lawsuit, filed in August 2023, the museum, also known as OMA, sought an unspecified sum in damages for fraud, conspiracy and various breaches from the five co-owners of the fake paintings, along with De Groft, who was fired by the museum as its executive director just days after the June raid.

Elliott’s statement Friday cited $315,000 of the museum’s total legal fees as arising from its compliance with the F.B.I.’s continuing investigation into the fake Basquiats and the museum’s role in their owners’ efforts to sell them. That compliance included responses to four F.B.I. subpoenas, including two issued months before the exhibition had even opened, and another issued just this past August.

The announcement Friday came in the wake of a New York Times story on Jan. 12 reporting on OMA’s financial crisis. The museum’s director and chief executive, Cathryn Mattson, told The Times that the museum, with a budget of roughly $4 million and an endowment of about the same amount, was facing an $835,000 projected deficit by the end of its fiscal year this June.

There has been public criticism from figures including Fiorella Escalon, a member of the museum’s Acquisition Trust board and the leader of the online Save OMA campaign. Escalon said that a lack of transparency on the part of the museum’s leadership had contributed to a flight of donors, exacerbating the state of the museum’s finances. After her campaign, she was removed from the museum’s board.

Although the museum noted in its statement that it still believed it could win the case against both De Groft and the artworks’ owners, “the cost to fight against multiple defendants is too high,” Elliott said.

He added, “We hope our efforts to pare down our lawsuit will allow us to reduce expenses, continue to provide the public with the entire story” behind the Basquiat exhibition “and hold De Groft accountable.”

Reached for comment, De Groft said that for OMA “to pursue an innocent person in their frivolous, meanspirited lawsuit is pathetic.” He added, “The Basquiat paintings are real and I brought real masterworks to the museum.”

De Groft has countersued the museum, claiming that he was unfairly fired and that his professional reputation had been unjustly destroyed. That countersuit, he said, “will result in a successful outcome of millions of dollars awarded to me.”


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