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Fired Orlando Museum of Art director answers email, FedEx label, forgery claims

In 2021, then-director Aaron De Groft gives a tour of the Orlando Museum of Art's refurbished galleries -- one of his accomplishments he says is now forgotten. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)
In 2021, then-director Aaron De Groft gives a tour of the Orlando Museum of Art’s refurbished galleries — one of his accomplishments he says is now forgotten. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

ֱ director Aaron De Groft is giving his point of view on the Basquiat scandal that ended his tenure at the Loch Haven Park institution — and in doing so, provides a glimpse at the direction his lawsuit against his former employer could go.

De Groft, who was fired in June 2022 days after the FBI raided the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibit of art attributed to the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, spoke with the Orlando Sentinel on multiple topics, including his firing and dealings with the museum’s board, days after countersuing OMA in response to the institution’s fraud suit against him and the owners of the seized paintings.

Among his statements in conversation with the Sentinel:

  • He expressed regret for being rude to a Basquiat expert in the now-infamous “Stay in your lane” email.
  • Hinted that his official emails could have been tampered with.
  • Said he will present evidence that the brouhaha over a pivotal FedEx shipping label is unfounded.
  • And introduced a new element to the continuing saga of the museum’s doomed “Heroes & Monsters” exhibit:  Another set of possible Basquiat forgeries, discovered in Norway and sold by the man who told the FBI he had made fake art that ended up at the Orlando museum.

Throughout the interview, De Groft was in turn angry over what happened and wistful for what might have been.

“Just think if they’d supported me, and the paintings were real — which we are proving they are,” he said, before adding: “What’s done is done, but see, what’s coming is coming.”

As museum director, De Groft had championed the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition, which lies at the core of OMA’s lawsuit against him, claiming he failed in his fiduciary duty to the museum. It later emerged that the paintings were part of an FBI investigation, and the museum had been served a subpoena before the artwork was even hung — though board of trustees members were unaware of it.

In April, it was revealed that California auctioneer Michael Barzman had told the FBI he helped create “Heroes & Monsters” artwork years after Basquiat’s 1988 death. He pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators but avoided jail time at his August sentencing.

Later that month, Orlando Museum of Art sued De Groft and the owners of the paintings it had displayed. While documents indicate the museum has been negotiating with some defendants, and a court order has given them more time to respond to OMA’s suit, De Groft said he was not one of them.

“No representative of Orlando Museum of Art or their attorneys has reached out to me,” he said.

Had De Groft not filed a response, he would have faced a summary judgment against him — as spelled out in an email he received from the museum’s law firm.

“We are unable to grant any further extensions,” wrote Ginny Childs of Akerman, which has been handling the Basquiat matter for the museum.  “If we do not receive a timely response, we will move for a default judgment.”

“I was not going to let that happen,” De Groft told the Sentinel. “They filed a lawsuit with absolutely no proof other than speculation. They have defamed me and smeared me.”

In a statement sent to the Orlando Sentinel from the museum’s public-relations firm, OMA reiterated its claims against its ex-director.

“De Groft was in breach of his fiduciary duty to the museum because of his actions authenticating and appraising of the works — no museum director is allowed to do this — which he did in secret with the painting owners for months,” the statement said.

De Groft dismissed the lawsuit as a face-saving measure for the museum, which has been under public scrutiny over its handling of the exhibition, calling the suit “clearly a public-relations document.”

He said the ongoing legal battle was hurting him financially, indicated in court records by a Nov. 28 notice from the Orange County Clerk of Courts that he still owes the $395 filing fee for his countersuit.

“I definitely didn’t get jobs I was more than qualified for because of this frivolous lawsuit,” De Groft said.

‘Future potential’

De Groft joined Orlando Museum of Art in 2021 as the institution began preparations to celebrate its centennial in 2024. At the time, he spoke of the museum’s “impressive past” and its “tremendous future potential.”

“I was hired to reinvigorate this mediocre place before its 100th anniversary,” is how he puts it now.

He did make well-received changes in the role, things he said that have been forgotten now.

He pointed to across-the-board raises given to employees shortly after his arrival. He also instituted paid maternity leave, which benefited two employees. People who worked at the museum at the time confirmed the benefits, noting the new maternity-leave policy was instituted while staff members were starting to question the Basquiat art. The staff’s skepticism about the paintings, backed by emails, forms part of the museum’s suit against De Groft.

A fundraiser in which museum guests watched the annual Met Gala in New York was successful, and he led a redo of the gift shop and a major refresh of the galleries with new paint and lighting.

“We were cooking with gas,” he said.

One aspect of his “reinvigoration” was to bring big-name exhibits to the museum, such as “Heroes & Monsters.” Basquiat was one of the most acclaimed contemporary artists of his time, and his works have sold for more than $110 million.

De Groft said he followed proper protocol before exhibiting the works, including seeking professional opinions on their authenticity and presenting the works to the museum’s trustees.

“I showed the board every image of the Basquiats,” he said. “There was no disagreement at all.”

He was taken aback when he became aware of the FBI subpoena: “I said, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ “

But he insisted that an FBI agent told him the museum was not a target and there was no reason to cancel the exhibit.

“The FBI said you’re not under investigation, and neither is the museum,” he recalls being told.

That matches what a museum spokeswoman said after news of the subpoena became public.

“The museum complied with a request for information,” the spokeswoman told the Sentinel in May 2022.  “The museum has never been led to believe it was or is the subject of any investigation … We see our involvement purely as a fact witness.”

But in its statement to the Sentinel last week, the museum pointed to the FBI as raising warning flags, whether the museum was the target of its investigation or not.

“The FBI took the works off the walls of the museum with no notice because they believe they are fraudulent,” read the statement, provided by Tucker/Hall, a Tampa-based crisis-management firm. “This is the foremost investigative law enforcement agency in the world — [you] don’t have to take OMA’s word about this fraud.”

A court filing by the Department of Justice, related to the sentencing of Barzman, makes the government’s position clear. It states that, “The fraudulent paintings have been the subject of numerous overlapping schemes over the past decade. The government’s investigation into those schemes is ongoing.”

Email questions

De Groft can’t prove that the FBI told him the exhibit could go on, but he says that’s because he lost access to his work emails when he was fired.

The museum’s lawsuit cites numerous emails sent from De Groft’s account to the owners of the “Heroes & Monsters” artwork and others, but De Groft raised questions about their authenticity. He said there are some  “I don’t recall writing — and I’m not the only person who had access to my email account.”

In one email cited in the museum’s lawsuit, De Groft apparently dreams of a luxurious future should the paintings be sold, writing to a correspondent, “Then I will retire with mazeratis and Ferraris.”

But De Groft pointed out pie-in-the-sky talk with friends isn’t proof of wrongdoing: “Even if I was just mouthing off, that’s not illegal,” he told the Sentinel.

He did say, however, that he regrets an angry email sent to Jordana Moore Saggese, a Basquiat expert hired by the collection’s owners to examine the works. She later said her report was used incorrectly in the “Heroes & Monsters” catalog and marketing.

“You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this?” De Groft wrote her, according to an email cited in the FBI’s investigation. “OK then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou … Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

De Groft told the Sentinel the email — which played a part in his firing — was “part of a larger dispute with her” but also said, “There’s no excuse.”

“I was rude to her; I apologize,” he said. “I should never be rude to anyone.”

Saggese later issued a statement saying she in no way authenticated any of the paintings and would not comment further on the situation.

The museum last week told the Sentinel “the boorish language in the Dr. Saggese emails is not the point — the point is that he appears to have threatened her with blackmail if she spoke out about the exhibition, specifically that she did not provide clear confirmation of their authenticity.”

Label in the spotlight

Another key aspect of the case has been a Federal Express shipping label on one of the paintings, which was created on discarded cardboard. It has been said that the now-common abbreviation of FedEx and the corresponding logo were not in use during Basquiat’s lifetime.

But De Groft told the Sentinel there were documents, including company annual reports and patent-office filings, that would show otherwise.

“We have documents and advertisements that show the word FedEx was being used,” he said.

And he cast doubt on Barzman’s story of creating the art displayed at the museum, referencing a legal document filed at the time of the California man’s sentencing by Pierce O’Donnell, a California attorney and one of the works’ owners. That filing contains emails and photos from an art dealer in Oslo, Norway, whose client bought alleged Basquiat artwork from Barzman — art that De Groft said  was definitely faked.

“These are amateurish paintings that are absolutely forged,” De Groft said.

O’Donnell’s statement reads: “They are so pathetically amateurish and do not even remotely resemble authentic Basquiats. As two renowned Basquiat experts have declared, the persons who painted these self-evident forgeries could not (and did not) paint our 25 paintings.”

O’Donnell and other owners of the paintings had filed their victim impact statements before Barzman was sentenced, arguing Barzman was lying about faking all of the paintings that ended up in the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibit by pointing to numerous discrepancies in his various FBI interviews.

Barzman’s admission that he forged the six paintings owned by the Basquiat Venice Collection Group, of which O’Donnell is co-manager, had damaged O’Donnell’s reputation, the filing stated, and “the value of our paintings — once appraised at $25 million before Barzman’s treachery — was totally trashed.”

A judge, however, ruled that the owners were not direct victims of the crime to which Barzman pleaded guilty — making false statements — and rejected their claims.

Still, De Groft also believes Barzman lied about forging the “Heroes & Monsters” works and admitted to it solely to get a better deal from the FBI — a strategy he said worked as Barzman was not charged with forgery or fraud, and his sentence did not include jail time.

“Isn’t that telling after you’ve admitted that you forged these paintings,” De Groft asked rhetorically.

According to court records, the government requested a lenient sentence for Barzman, which the judge approved.

“Defendant [Barzman] undeniably has had a difficult life, physically and emotionally,” stated a pre-sentencing court filing. “Defendant’s struggles with substance abuse and financial difficulties likely contributed to some of the unfortunate decisions he made regarding the fraudulent paintings. To be clear: were it not for defendant’s physical problems and mental health issues, the government would be seeking a prison sentence here.

Fears of firing

Although OMA’s trustees were unaware of the FBI activity, board chair Cynthia Brumback — De Groft’s boss — did know. When she did not tell the trustees about the FBI subpoena, could he have laid the whole matter to rest by telling them himself?

“I would have been fired,” for going over his boss’s head, De Groft said. Brumback, who resigned from the board of trustees in December 2022, didn’t respond to an offer to comment for this article.

But the museum said any fear of firing is overexaggerated.

“What evidence is there to show De Groft had a fear of being fired?” the museum statement queried. “No one board member — including the chair — could have fired De Groft by themselves.”

Ultimately, however, he was unceremoniously terminated.

De Groft had gone on vacation shortly before the FBI raided the museum, he said, which confirmed what an OMA spokesperson said at the time.

But after hearing about the raid, he “tried to get back on my OMA email, and it didn’t work,” he said.

De Groft was then fired over the phone, he said, while “my wife and I were at lunch at Lake Baldwin, looking out at a beautiful lake. They did not return all my possessions. I was not let back into the building. It was pretty draconian.”

“Why hasn’t De Groft, in the past year-plus found an employment lawyer to take his case if he’s thevictim of wrongful termination?” the museum statement rhetorically countered.

But De Groft said he was confident he would prevail in court.

“I have been subjected to a major injustice,” he said. “There will be a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment, one way or another.”

Follow me at facebook.com/matthew.j.palm or email me at mpalm@orlandosentinel.com. Find more arts news and reviews at orlandosentinel.com/arts, and go to orlandosentinel.com/theater for theater news and reviews.

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