May 22, 2024
Frame of Reference
Orlando Museum of Art officials touted "Heroes & Monsters" as a world premiere of lost Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings. But an FBI raid, amid allegations the paintings are forgeries, put the museum on the brink.

Photo: Melanie Metz/The New York Times/Redux

Frame of Reference
Aaron De Groft insists he bears no responsibility. "I wasn't the guy that caused any problems because there were no problems," he says.

Photo: Melanie Met/The New York Times/Redux

Frame of Reference
An exhibition catalog included the backstory of how the lost paintings were found. Two key players gave sworn statements that it wasn't true.

Photo: Orlando Museum of Art

Frame of Reference
A Los Angeles man admitted that he and a friend imitated a modern master's art in 30 minutes or less.

Photo: Orlando Museum of Art

Frame of Reference
OMA Executive Director and CEO Cathryn Mattson, left, board of trustees Chair Mark Elliott and Ginny Childs, OMA's attorney and managing director of Akerman's Orlando office, say regaining OMA's accreditation and solidifying its finances are their priorities despite critics' claims they aren't being transparent.

Photo: Norma Lopez Molina

Frame of Reference
The Orlando Museum of Art's Basquiat scandal represents a cautionary tale, says Executive Director Cathryn Mattson. "There's a lot of art fraud out there. This can happen to any museum."

Photo: Orlando Museum of Art

Frame of Reference
Former museum supporter Fiorella Excalon launched a petition in December accusing OMA of covering up aspects of the Basquiat fiasco and demanding a house cleaning.

Photo: Todd Anderson/The New York Times/Redux

Frame of Reference
OMA's lawsuit against De Groft says museum curators noticed a shipping label under the paint on "Cat & Fire Truck." It was addressed to the admitted forger, who was just 4 when Basquiat supposedly made the painting.

Photo: Orlando Museum of Art

Art Museums

Frame of Reference

As the Orlando Museum of Art tries to restore its reputation and financial stability, its recent past keeps getting in the way.

Michael Fechter | 4/17/2024

Orlando Museum of Art Executive Director and CEO Cathryn Mattson recently stood before a handful of journalists and museum staffers in a low-key launch of the museum’s centennial.

“I’m not going to take regular Q&A today,” she said, wanting to keep the focus on the museum’s 100th anniversary, which features an exhibition showcasing its volunteer-funded $40-million permanent collection. It includes works by Andy Warhol, Dale Chihuly, Robert Mapplethorpe and Takashi Murakami.

Opening the floor to questions would have meant discussing the ongoing fallout from a scandal that placed the museum on the brink of financial ruin after federal agents literally took paintings off museum walls in June 2022 as part of a decade-long fraud investigation.

The focus of the investigation was an exhibition called “Heroes & Monsters,” an unveiling of what the museum said were 26 never-seen-before paintings by the late neoexpressionist painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The problem, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles wrote last year, is that the paintings weren’t real Basquiats. Most of the featured works, they said, had been created more than two decades after Basquiat’s death by two men who sold them on eBay.

The scandal scared off many of the museum’s donors and led to the firing of Mattson’s predecessor, Aaron De Groft.

The FBI handed OMA its fourth subpoena last August, two weeks after the museum sued De Groft and the paintings’ owners for fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

The American Alliance of Museums, which first accredited OMA in 1971, placed the museum on probation, describing it as “a museum still in turmoil ... putting the museum’s operations, funding, and overall viability at great risk.”

It is the only American museum in accreditation purgatory. It will stay there, a spokeswoman says, until it can “demonstrate that it has addressed its particular compliance issues to the accreditation commission’s satisfaction.”

High hopes

Back in early 2022, the museum was hoping the Basquiat exhibition would attract national and international attention along with a younger, more diverse audience. Basquiat’s graffiti-like style and tragic life helped him become an international sensation. The works of Basquiat, the Brooklyn-born son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, first were displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1981, when he was just 21. The exhibit, “New York New Wave,” featured other cutting-edge artists such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.

Basquiat’s popularity — along with the value of his paintings — has only grown since his 1988 death from an overdose. One Basquiat sold to a Japanese collector for $110 million in 2017. Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z reportedly owns at least one, dropping a reference in his 2007 hit titled Ain’t I — “I got Warhols on my hall’s wall. I got Basquiats in the lobby of my spot.”

OMA promoted “Heroes & Monsters” as “a rare group of paintings from a private collection that are being shown for the first time.” That could be because no other museum was willing to take the chance. According to OMA’s lawsuit, a New York art dealer approached Orlando’s city-owned Mennello Museum of American Art in 2019 about exhibiting some of the same supposed Basquiats. Mennello’s director declined because she doubted their authenticity.

De Groft insists that the paintings are real Basquiat works, casting himself as a raider of lost art and claiming also to have access to previously unknown works by artists ranging from Italian Renaissance painter Titian to American drip painter Jackson Pollock.

But the FBI affidavit used to obtain the 2022 warrant to seize the art makes clear that De Groft’s Basquiat discovery was long suspected of being phony. Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas first learned of the paintings in 2013, writing that people allegedly were pressuring a man “to sign false provenance documentation.” Such a statement, she wrote, “would significantly bolster the provenance of the paintings and bring them a step closer to allowing (the owners) to convert paintings of very little value into paintings worth potentially millions of dollars.”

Reports questioning the authenticity of the paintings have been well documented. One work was painted over a FedEx box with a logo that wasn’t used until six years after Basquiat died. The man who supposedly stashed the paintings and another — who was said to have stumbled onto them after buying the contents of an abandoned Los Angeles storage unit — gave sworn statements saying that neither story was true. Thaddeus Mumford, the original owner of the storage unit, said he didn’t know Basquiat and never stored the paintings. Michael Barzman, who had said he bought the storage unit’s contents at auction, admitted to the FBI that he and a friend forged them. Some were done in as little as five minutes, he said. None took longer than a half-hour. Barzman was sentenced to probation and community service for lying to the FBI.

“Heroes & Monsters” originally was scheduled to run through June 2023. But when the FBI learned in May 2022 that the exhibition would be headed for Italy that July, it moved in.

De Groft acknowledged in a December 2021 email that he takes “a lot of risks and always has but with hedged bets that I know are right. Fortune favors the bold and the brave. I remember someone wise and sage told me that my previous board did not (know) how far out on the limb I would go.” Still, he casts the FBI’s move as unnecessary and attention-seeking, telling Florida Trend, “They could have called and said, ‘Hey, after the exhibition closes Sunday, pack these up because we’re going to pick them all up on Monday.’ But no, they called the news, helicopters and all this stuff because that’s what they do. That’s what the (FBI’s) art squad does.”

Lingering allegations

Museum executives promised a thorough investigation and point to their lawsuit against De Groft and the paintings’ owners as a de facto report of its findings. But some critics, including past museum supporters, say they aren’t satisfied and hint of a cover-up.

The lawsuit “is inaccurate and incomplete,” says Fiorella Escalon, who previously helped fund OMA’s annual Florida Prize. In December, she posted an online petition demanding Mattson and all trustees resign. Their failure to do so, she says, amounts to “clinging to power. What information are they protecting?” Failure to release a full investigative report “is proof that they are hiding something.”

OMA executives say such criticism is ill-informed or misguided. Escalon also accuses Ginny Childs, OMA’s attorney and managing director of Akerman’s Orlando office, of hiding a longtime friendship with Cynthia Brumback, the board chair during De Groft’s tenure. Escalon and other critics — including De Groft in a countersuit against OMA — say that Childs also should have informed other board members about an FBI subpoena that came in well before “Heroes & Monsters” debuted.

Both assertions are false, Childs says. She met Brumback in person one time and did not know her before De Groft signed the engagement letter for Akerman to represent OMA. She advised De Groft and Brumback to disclose the subpoena’s existence to the board. When they chose not to do so, she says she wasn’t empowered to go around them and tell others. De Groft, Childs says, “was the museum for all intents and purposes during this time period. He was the director and chief executive officer. Like it or not, the buck stopped with him.”

OMA can’t focus on rebutting “every false bit of information,” says board of trustees Chair Mark Elliott. “Our focus is on running a successful museum and being hyper-focused on accreditation renewal. It is our most important duty.”

He and executive director Mattson emphasize changes to ensure good governance. That includes beefing up whistleblower policies for museum staffers, mandating trustees undergo training from the Edyth Bush Institute for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Rollins College, and working with the American Alliance of Museums to restore OMA’s accreditation. Its previous 10-year approval was due to expire next year anyway, Mattson says, so they are treating the situation as an attempt to secure an entirely new accreditation.

Despite the moves, a volunteer group that helps fund purchases for the museum’s permanent collection announced in late January a vote of no confidence in Mattson and the board. The group expressed concern that their donations, earmarked for new art purchases, might be siphoned off to help fill the budget deficit. Museum executives insist that cannot happen, and that they tried to show the group’s leader during a meeting the two sides had. The meeting was “a farce,” board of trustees’ chair Elliott said in an email to museum trustees obtained by Florida Trend. “It was a setup to be a vehicle for a vocal minority within (Friends of American Art) who have an ax to grind and are hell-bent on destroying the OMA.”

Even if the allegation about mingling funds were true, it likely would be caught in audited financial statements, which board members can review. In addition, such a move also would likely kill any shot of regaining accreditation.

Accreditation moves

Slowly but steadily, Mattson says, the museum’s projected deficits are shrinking. She cites new support from board members, operational cost cutting and a strong stock market. Talks seeking more support continue with potential donors and governmental entities. “I feel very positive that we will get there,” she says. “Nobody wants to see the museum fail.”

Attendance this year will exceed pre-COVID numbers, Mattson predicts, which also are pre-Basquiat exhibition figures. Earned income, generated by program revenue, education fees, gift shop sales, memberships and ticket sales totaled $2.4 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, an 11% increase over 2019.

The problem is in unforeseen costs. The museum spent more than $300,000 in legal fees complying with the FBI subpoenas, the August one indicating the criminal investigation continues. It still retains crisis communication support from Tampa’s Tucker/Hall. Then there was the cost of the museum’s own investigation into what went wrong, which resulted in the civil suit against De Groft and the owners of the purported Basquiat paintings. In January, the museum dropped all the defendants except De Groft, partly because of the litigation costs of going after so many people, it says.

De Groft, meanwhile, countersued OMA for wrongful termination and defamation. Despite its inclusion of dozens of his own emails, De Groft insists “there is not a kernel of truth” in OMA’s lawsuit and the accusation that he breached his fiduciary duty is a “damnable and demonstrable lie.”

While challenges remain, OMA leaders believe they have started to turn the corner. Despite the negative attention, the museum has met all its contract responsibilities with local schools and other organizations with programs at OMA, Mattson says. Once accreditation is restored and the crisis is put behind it, the museum needs to build an endowment to help absorb future challenges, Mattson says. “I look forward to the day when we can share with AAM the lessons we learned. There’s a lot of art fraud out there. This can happen to any museum.”

Warning Signs

The Orlando Museum of Art’s lawsuit against former Executive Director Aaron De Groft depicts a pump-and-dump scheme in which the museum provided the legitimacy needed for fortunes to be made selling fake Basquiat paintings. De Groft was so determined to make it happen he “began acting contrary to his fiduciary duties almost immediately after being hired,” it says.

“Beware of FAKE works!” the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s website has said since at least September 2021. If De Groft saw this, it did not give him pause, according to the lawsuit.

After becoming aware of OMA’s intentions in July 2021 to display the works, an FBI agent reached out to De Groft, who didn’t tell his board of directors. But De Groft did alert Pierce O’Donnell, one of the paintings’ owners, writing, “We marshal on.” He did the same thing eight days later after receiving a subpoena, writing to O’Donnell: “Need to talk ASAP.”

Once the paintings reached Orlando in October 2021, museum curators quickly raised red flags.

They noticed one of the works, “Cat & Fire Truck,” was painted over a shipping label. When De Groft heard museum personnel discussing it, he “provided several implausible justifications,” the museum’s lawsuit says, “which OMA’s curatorial staff did not believe to be credible. Frustrated, De Groft reacted by exclaiming: ‘If they’re fakes, then they’re the best damn fakes the art world has ever seen.’”

Except that the label was addressed to Michael Barzman, the Los Angeles man who now says he and a buddy forged the paintings. And Barzman, OMA’s lawsuit notes, was only 4 years old in 1982 when Basquiat would have painted over the label.

Similarly, the painting “Crown Face II” is painted over a FedEx box with a logo bearing a font and color scheme that weren’t used until six years after Basquiat’s death, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit.

De Groft still insists the Basquiats are real. He says he can prove the FedEx box font was used during Basquiat’s life and claims the company used two fonts. But in its affidavit, the FBI said it had interviewed a graphic designer who worked for Federal Express and that individual confirmed the typeface on the cardboard wasn’t created until 1993. Moreover, the affidavit states, customers didn’t affix their own labels to shipping boxes in 1982 when “Cat & Firetruck” supposedly was created.

More warnings emerged as the exhibition’s February 2022 opening neared. In December 2021, an artist who worked on Basquiat exhibitions and won the museum’s annual Florida Prize wrote to the curator warning that, “The two images being shared publicly so far seem like fake Basquiats.”

De Groft dismissed the warning, the OMA lawsuit claims, but somebody saw enough to share those concerns publicly. The New York Times asked about the paintings’ authenticity in January, and in the days before the opening, a local television station specifically asked whether FBI agents had been to the museum or seized computers.

O’Donnell, one of the paintings’ owners, drafted the narrowly focused reply for De Groft to send, according to email exhibits in the lawsuit. The FBI “has never been to the museum,” it said, but those who do “will come to see our extraordinary, unprecedented collection of 25 neverbefore- exhibited original paintings by Basquiat ... OMA is proud to be the museum to debut them to the world later this week.”

Another email exhibit shows De Groft telling the owner of a purported Titian painting that the Basquiat exhibition is “all part of the plan of exhibiting and selling masterpieces. You could not have done this without me. Face it. If we sell .... I need 30 percent. ... Let me sell these Basquiats and Pollock and then Titian is up next with a track record. Then I will retire with mazeratis [sic] and Ferraris.”

In an interview, De Groft says he doesn’t remember writing emails discussing selling art displayed at OMA. To do so would be unethical. He dismisses the lawsuit against him as “pathetic and idiotic,” “a list of them complaining” and “a timeline of emails almost all of which was illegally obtained.”

The OMA lawsuit against De Groft is scheduled for trial in May 2025.

Sent: Tue 2/1/2022 2:01:57 AM

Subject: You want to come to my Basquiat show opening.

Let me sell these Basquiats and Pollock and then Titian is up next with a track record. Then I will retire with mazeratis and Ferraris. (F#@k) the world shenanigans we when you have money. Tell the girls. You have to all to have to play well. We are in the galactic atmosphere of Art sales.

‘SHOCKINGLY CANDID’

The Orlando Museum of Art’s lawsuit against former Executive Director Aaron De Groft describes him as “the critical missing piece” in a scheme to make millions by legitimizing fake paintings. It points to this email, sent 11 days before the Basquiat exhibition’s opening, showing him being “shockingly candid,” about an anticipated windfall.

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