Orlando Museum of Art Responds to Ex-Director’s Countersuit Over Basquiat Scandal

Aaron De Groft countersued over allegedly defamatory comments by the museum's board chairman.

The Orlando Museum of Art, which presented a 2022 show of allegedly fake Basquiats. Photo courtesy Ebyabe/Wikimedia

The Orlando Museum of Art in Florida has responded in court to a countersuit filed by its former executive director amid the ongoing fallout from the institution’s 2022 scandal over allegedly fake works purportedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The FBI seized 25 paintings attributed to Basquiat from the “Heroes and Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” exhibition in June 2022 after doubts surfaced about the authenticity of the works. Aaron De Groft was fired after the paintings were seized and Michael Barzman, a former auctioneer, admitted to creating the fake Basquiat paintings with a partner and pleaded guilty to federal charges of making false statements to the FBI.

In August 2023, the museum filed a lawsuit against De Groft alleging he was part of a “vast conspiracy” to handpick the forged artworks and fast-track the problematic exhibition. The lawsuit also named three other defendants, owners of the allegedly fake Basquiat works, but the museum dropped those charges in January.

De Groft countersued in November 2023, alleging that he was made a scapegoat after the seizure of the paintings, but a judge dismissed his counterclaim at the request of the museum.

Still, De Groft has stood by his belief that the Basquiat paintings are authentic and refiled an amended counterclaim in May, alleging unlawful actions by the museum which had a deadline of June 3 to respond. The museum met its deadline to respond.

Specifically in his amended complaint, De Groft pointed to “false statements” made by museum board chair Mark Elliott, including that the museum had “uncovered a vast conspiracy that De Groft initiated.”

A fake Jean-Michel Basquiat the FBI seized from the Orlando Museum of Art. Michael Barzman has confessed to creating the forgeries, and will pay a $500 fine and serve three years probation for making false statements to the FBI about the forgeries. Photo courtesy of the United States Attorney’s Office Central District of California.

A fake Jean-Michel Basquiat the FBI seized from the Orlando Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the United States Attorney’s Office Central District of California.

“[De Groft] abused his position of trust, lied to anyone who questioned the provenance of the artwork, created an environment of fear and hostility amongst the staff, and brought great shame to our community by mounting an exhibition of forged works,” Elliott had said.

The former executive director shot back that he did not abuse his position of trust or lie to anyone who questioned the provenance of the work. He also hit back at allegations that he created “an environment of fear and hostility” among staff.

De Groft’s countersuit argues that comments by Elliott are defamatory and that the museum acted in bad faith, constituting a breach of contract when he was fired. He is seeking damages of $314,246.40 plus other costs and interest.

“OMA denies it committed any of the unlawful actions alleged in the amended counterclaim and denies De Groft is entitled to any of the relief sought,” the museum said in its response filed to the court on June 3 as the deadline was set to expire.

The museum uses a variety of legal arguments to defend against De Groft’s counterclaim, including that “the alleged defamatory statement” made by Elliott referenced in De Groft’s counterclaim were “truthful” or “based on truthful information” and “were made during the course of the pending lawsuit and are related to the litigation of the subject lawsuit.”

And, the museum argues that even if De Groft could demonstrate the likelihood of harm to him, he cannot demonstrate that OMA’s actions were the case of the harm and has failed to prove the museum acted with malice. Both parties in the Basquiat scandal have requested jury trials.

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