Aaron De Groft was dismissed from his post as director and CEO of the Orlando Museum of Art on June 28, just four days after the Federal Bureau of Investigations entered the institution and seized twenty-five works said to have been by Jean-Michel Basquiat over allegations that they are in fact forgeries. The paintings made up the entirety of the exhibition “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat,” which was to travel to Italy following its slated June 30 closing. According to the New York Times, the firing stemmed from the revelation of a threatening missive from De Groft to an academic involved in the authentication of the works on display, who had requested that her name not be affiliated with the show.
The paintings, all on reclaimed cardboard, were said by De Groft and their respective owners to have been made in 1982 and placed in storage, where they remained until being rediscovered in 2012. Jordana Moore Saggese, an associate professor of art at the University of Maryland, was paid $60,000 by the works’ owners to assess them and offer a written report. After providing the chronicle, Saggese had second thoughts and reached out to museum officials to ask that she not be mentioned in association with the widely advertised “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition. According to an affidavit filed by the FBI in seeking to obtain a search warrant that would allow them to enter the Orlando museum, De Groft replied via email, “You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this? Ok then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.” Asserting that the paintings were authentic, De Groft threatened to expose Saggese’s receipt of payment to her employer. “Do your academic thing,” he warned, “and stay in your limited lane.”
Concerns regarding the works’ authenticity center around a work created on a box fragment bearing the phrase “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here,” in a typeface reported not to have come been used by the shipping giant until 1994—six years after Basquiat’s death.
“The Orlando Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees is extremely concerned about several issues with regard to the [Basquiat] ‘Heroes & Monsters’ exhibition, including the recent revelation of an inappropriate e-mail correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition,” said museum board chair Cynthia Brumback in a statement.
“We have launched an official process to address these matters, as they are inconsistent with the values of this institution, our business standards, and our standards of conduct,” she continued. “Additionally, we are making some new decisions with regard to upcoming exhibitions and will announce those plans at a later time.
The Orlando Sentinel reports that Joann Walfish, the museum’s longtime CFO, has been appointed interim COO.