Public calling for transparency after Orlando Museum of Art raided by FBI

Authenticity of Basquiat exhibit called into question by experts and investigators

The FBI raided the museum’s ‘Heroes and Monsters’ Basquiat exhibit in late June. 25 pieces of artwork — which the museum claimed were created by Jean-Michele Basquiat — were removed by federal agents.

ORLANDO, Fla. – County, city and art-community leaders are calling for transparency after the Orlando Museum of Art came under fire from a recent raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In an email statement sent earlier this week, the Orlando Museum of Art announced Aaron De Groft “effective immediately” will no longer serve as its CEO and director.

It was not clarified whether De Groft resigned or was terminated.

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The announcement came after the FBI raided the museum’s ‘Heroes and Monsters’ Basquiat exhibit in late June. 25 pieces of artwork — which the museum claimed were created by Jean-Michele Basquiat — were removed by federal agents.

Museum officials said that they complied with the FBI’s requests, though the museum has no reason to believe it is the subject of any investigation — instead acting as a fact witness for law enforcement.

“They removed these pictures because it appears they are fake. They want to remove them from the marketplace, so no one attempts to sell these pictures down the road,” said Chadd Scott.

Scott is an arts contributor writing for publications like Forbes for the past four years. He attended the opening night of the exhibit, which drew thousands to Central Florida to see pieces advertised as a rare find.

“He is the most influential artist this country has ever produced. At auction, his painting would be valued in excess of 200-million dollars,” Scott said.

According to a search warrant, federal art crimes investigators have been looking into the 25 paintings since shortly after their discovery in 2012. The controversy gained more attention shortly after the Orlando exhibit opened in February.

The Orlando Museum of Art was the first institution to display pieces said to have been found in an old storage locker years after Basquiat’s 1988 death from a drug overdose at age 27.

Questions about the artwork’s authenticity arose almost immediately after their discovery. The artwork was purportedly made in 1982, but experts have pointed out that the cardboard used in at least one of the pieces included FedEx typeface that wasn’t used until 1994, about six years after Basquiat died, according to the warrant.

Television writer Thad Mumford, the owner of the storage locker where the art was eventually found, also told investigators that he had never owned any Basquiat art and that the pieces were not in the unit the last time he had visited. Mumford died in 2018.

Orlando Museum of Art director Aaron De Groft has repeatedly insisted that the art is legitimate.

Back in February, De Groft did send a statement backing his claims.

Investigators noted, however, an email exchange between De Groft and an art professor hired to authenticate the work.

She wrote Aaron De Groft, saying, “I am in no way authorized to authenticate unknown works by Jean-Michele Basquiat and want no involvement in this show.”

De Groft in an email replied, “You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this? Ok then. Shut up.” He then went on to say, “Be quiet now is my best advice. These are real and legit. You know this. You are threatening the wrong people. Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”

News 6 did reach out to De Groft for comment by phone and email but have not heard back.

Several community leaders did tell News 6 the Orlando Museum of Art needs to act fast due to the FBI raid affecting the public’s trust.

Steve Kahn, who is the founder and executive director of Snap! Orlando, a gallery downtown, said “”People are starting to ask for their tickets to be reimbursed for the opening you know it’s like we been duped. It definitely puts us a step backwards and all the efforts that every arts organization is trying to do here, so it’s just not a great look for around the world.”

News 6 also spoke with Matt Brewer, the CEO of the Central Florida Foundation. He said, “I would hope the museum and the rest of its leadership would put the story out there as fast as quickly as possible. That transparency is the one thing that will attract people and embrace people into the museums’ future.”

Terry Olson with Orange County’s Art and Cultural Affairs said his department approved a $155,000 grant for the museum.

The Basquiat paintings mentioned in the application may affect future funding, according to Olson.

“No we don’t take money back,” said Olson. “And certainly, what happens this year can affect their score for next year, although it’s about the institution of the museum and not an individual.”

While the exhibit was set to close June 30, museum officials said they will continue to cooperate with the FBI should there be any further requests.

No charges have been filed at this time in this case.

We reached out multiple times to the Orlando Museum of Art for comment but have not heard back.

Check back with News 6 for further updates.

About the Author:

Brian Didlake joined the News 6 team as a reporter in March 2021.