The Orlando Museum Drops Claims Against Most Defendants in Fake Basquiats Lawsuit

However, the museum is continuing its lawsuit against former director Aaron De Groft.

Orlando Museum of Art. Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The Orlando Museum of Art has dismissed its claims against most defendants in a lawsuit filed over a 2022 exhibition of fake paintings purportedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The museum has dropped claims against Pierce O’Donnell, John Leo Mangan III, William Michael Force, Taryn Burns, the Basquiat Venice Collection Group, the MJL Trust LLC and Richard LiPuma, according to a statement from chairman Mark Elliot, sent by the museum’s crisis public relations firm Tucker Hall.

“Notably, the museum has not dismissed its case against Aaron De Groft, the former executive director and CEO of OMA and the person responsible for handpicking the forged artwork and fast-tracking the exhibition,” Elliot said, adding later that the museum has never discussed settling the case against De Groft despite preliminary meetings about doing so in November has “the evidence to win this case.”

Elliot said the museum had “uncovered a vast conspiracy” in which the former executive director lied about the provenance of the artworks and created a hostile work environment. He revealed that De Groft had a hidden financial interest in the failed exhibition and “brought great shame” to the museum by mounting it.

“At a time when authenticity and provenance are increasingly questioned, we must continue to stand against those like De Groft, who would abuse the process for personal gain,” Elliot said.

The show, “Heroes and Monsters,” opened to much fanfare in February 2022 as the institution trumpeted the discovery and display of previously unseen Basquiat works. The claim proved to be false. A few months into its run, the exhibition was raided by the FBI and its 25 paintings seized, after which a Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman confessed to forging the works alongside an accomplice only known as J.F.

The defendants Mangan, Force and Burns had all allegedly schemed and offered thousands of dollars to Barzman, to authenticate fraudulent paintings included in the show. Barzman has pleaded guilty to criminal charges of lying to the FBI and admitted that the paintings were forged and their provenance falsified. The Basquiat Venice Collection Group is a venture capital firm that owned some of the allegedly false paintings and MJL Trust was allegedly persuaded by De Groft and others to display 19 of the fraudulent works.

Years on, the scandal has left the OMA embattled and as recently revealed by the New York Times, in severe financial crisis.

“The museum’s unbudgeted expenses are significant and directly result from De Groft’s wrongful conduct,” Elliot said in his statement. “As a result of the exhibition, the museum has had to comply with four separate grand jury subpoenas (none of which were budgeted or foreseen) and otherwise cooperate with the still-ongoing FBI criminal investigation—an investigation into a long con that began more than 10 years ago and that the museum should have never been dragged into.”

Grand jury proceedings are secret investigative panels in which prosecutors present evidence to civilians to determine whether the evidence is strong enough to take the case to trial. Elliot revealed that the first two grand jury subpoenas were served by the FBI in July 2021, before the exhibition even opened.

“De Groft and the former Board Chair did not share the existence of these first two subpoenas with the Board of Trustees,” Elliot alleged in his statement. “A third grand jury subpoena was served on the museum by the FBI—and complied with—shortly after the FBI seized the artwork in June 2022.”

The fourth subpoena was served by the FBI more than a year later, in August 2023, two weeks after the museum filed its lawsuit against De Groft. The subpoena required the museum to collect, store, and produce documents including “thousands of emails.” Elliot said that the subpoenas required a level of technical prowess of data retention and sorting that required the museum to hire third-party professionals, retained through its law firm.

Elliot revealed that the total costs for these third-party services were around $315,000, which he called “significant, unforeseen and unbudgeted.”

“The museum should never have been put in a position to bear these costs, and the fault for this lies squarely with De Groft and the co-defendants,” Elliot said. “Much has been made about the museum’s financial position, but the rumors circulating in the media and elsewhere paint only half the picture.”

The museum has seemingly still not provided to the public a copy of a report of the findings from its internal investigation.


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