(ORLANDO, Fla.) — A Florida art museum has filed a lawsuit more than a year after it mounted an exhibition of paintings by the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat that federal investigators determined to be fake.
The Orlando Museum of Art said it is suing the people behind the exhibition “Heroes & Monsters,” which purportedly featured never-before-seen works by Basquiat. The FBI seized more than two dozen paintings in the show in June 2022 amid a conspiracy and wire fraud investigation in connection with the artwork.
“OMA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — and unwittingly staked its reputation — on exhibiting the now-admittedly fake paintings,” the complaint states. “Consequently, cleaning up the aftermath created by the Defendants has cost OMA even more. OMA was placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums and its 99-year legacy was shattered. OMA is entitled to legal redress for these harms.”
In a statement, the museum said it “seeks to hold responsible the people the Museum believes knowingly misrepresented the works’ authenticity and provenance.” The lawsuit, filed Monday in the Circuit Court of Orange County, Florida, includes fraud, conspiracy and breach of contract among its counts and is seeking damages in an amount to be proven at trial.
The museum’s former director and CEO, Aaron De Groft, who was ousted amid the scandal, is named among the defendants. The lawsuit alleges that De Groft attempted to profit off the eventual sale of the fake artwork.
“De Groft further capitalized on OMA’s reputation and financial resources to gain personal fame and notoriety from his role in these business transactions as a ‘discoverer’ of found art,” the lawsuit stated.
In response to the lawsuit, De Groft denied having any financial arrangement with the owners of the Basquiats in comments to the New York Times.
The pieces were purportedly created in 1982 and found in a storage locker owned by the late TV producer Thaddeus Mumford Jr. whose contents were sold at auction in 2012.
In an interview with the FBI in 2014, four years before his death, Mumford denied ever having any Basquiat artwork and was unaware of the artist’s work being stored in his storage locker, according to an FBI affidavit.
Earlier this year, a one-time auctioneer charged in connection with the federal investigation confessed to creating the fake Basquiats in 2012 after concocting a plan with an accomplice to market the works, prosecutors said. The defendant, Michael Barzman, admitted to making most of the works featured in the Orlando Museum of Art’s Basquiat exhibition, prosecutors said while announcing a plea agreement in the case.
The Orlando Museum of Art’s lawsuit alleges De Groft disregarded “all obvious signs” that the paintings were fake, including the “existence of an FBI investigation” and the presence in one work of a FedEx typeface that wasn’t created until 1994 — 12 years after the paintings were said to be created by Basquiat.
The complaint also lists the owners of the artworks among the defendants. In statements to the New York Times, two of the owners, Pierce O’Donnell and Leo Mangan, insisted the works were authentic. O’Donnell called the lawsuit “false and defamatory.”
ABC News has reached out to the defendants for comment. Online records do not list any attorney information for them.
The “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition fell under public scrutiny after a New York Times report published upon its opening in February 2022 raised questions about the authenticity of the pieces.
Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.