Fake Basquiats & the Case Against an Orlando Museum Director

From 2005 to 2018, Aaron De Groft served as the Director of William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art in Virginia. During his tenure, the museum grew to (inter)national prominence, putting on exhibitions from the Medici Collections, Michelangelo drawings, Caravaggio paintings, and the Golden Age Dutch landscapes. It was also in these 13 years that the museum doubled its collection. De Groft had made a reputation in art circles as someone who had the talent of unearthing lost art from the 16th to the 19th century. A master of his craft? Certainly…but which one?

Aaron De Groft was in charge of a 2017 exhibition at the Muscarelle Museum of Art called The Art and Science of Connoisseurship, which featured six of the museum’s newest acquisitions.

These paintings were first discovered by former Muscarelle curator John Spike, who collaborated with De Groft to acquire newly unearthed works for the museum. The two joined forces to acquire a Cezanne work from the 19th century, which they purchased at an anonymous auction.

In addition, De Groft was involved with the authentication of a Titian portrait from the 16th century. The art director studied archival material that initially discredited Titian’s authorship and found that it had been misinterpreted. In addition, he conducted scientific testing on pigment size to verify the painting’s authenticity.

Questionable Authenticity Process

When determining the authenticity of an artwork, experts typically consider a variety of factors, including the materials used, the artist’s signature, and provenance.

The first step in authentication is often a visual examination of the piece. Upon checking for any irregularities or signs that the piece has been tampered with, they will also take note of the materials used and compare them to known works by the artist.

If there’s reason to believe that the piece may be a fake, further testing may be necessary. This can include X-rays, infrared examinations, or chemical tests. These tests can help to reveal hidden signatures or other information that may confirm the piece’s authenticity. 

The methods and steps De Groft and Spike used to verify the art pieces were, to some, unconventional, and to others, somewhat dubious. This process involved them acquiring previously unexceptional paintings from the 16th century to the 19th century for a low price at an auction and then certifying them as works of famed artists.  

Skepticism in art circles was evident. One such critic was art historian Charles Hope, who was unconvinced by the evidence De Groft put forward. In an interview with the Observer, he said, “The portrait is, to most people’s eyes including my own, a feeble work unworthy of Titian himself.” He continued, “I tend to be suspicious of art historians using exotic scientific techniques to boost the credibility of second-rate pictures. It is an extremely common practice, and seldom, in my experience, produces convincing results.”

While at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, a total of 21 paintings from classical painters were “discovered”. 

The Peculiar Basquiat Exhibition

Upon resigning from his position as Art Director at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, Aaron De Groft moved down to Florida, where in February of 2021 he got the job as the Director and CEO of the oldest museum in the state, the Orlando Museum of Art

Exactly 12 months later, it was announced that the museum would host an exhibition from Basquiat entitled Heroes and Monsters, pieces painted on cardboard and ranging in size from 10 inches to nearly 5 feet. It was said to present private collection paintings having their premiere showing at the OMA. 

One of the leading figures in the Neo-Expressionist movement of the 1980s, Basquiat’s work is full of energy, color, and movement. His paintings often feature heroes and monsters, which reflect his interest in comic books and pop culture. A rare glimpse into the mind of one of the most important artists of the 20th century was always going to garner attention. With never-before-exhibited paintings about to go on display, this one wasn’t going to be an exception. 

The collection of works was created in 1982 and sold by Basquiat the same year to Thad Mumford for $5,000 while he was living and working in Venice, California, under the house of Larry Gagosian. Gagosian himself stated that this likely never happened. When Mumford failed to pay the storage unit’s bill in 2012 where the paintings were kept, they were sold at auction and purchased by William Force for $15,000, nearly 25 years after the artist’s death.

Under a Cloud of Doubt

The authenticity of the supposed Basquiat paintings in Heroes & Monsters was first questioned in a New York Times story in March. Despite the fact that doubts about the art’s authenticity began almost as soon as the show opened, De Groft remained unshaken in his defense of the pieces. He praised the exhibit, referring to the 25 pieces as “masterpieces” and claiming that there was “no doubt” about their authenticity. He went on to add, “My reputation is at stake as well…”

The credibility of the paintings has been called into question for a variety of reasons. One such painting was made on a piece of FedEx box cardboard with the text “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here” written in a typeface that wasn’t used by FedEx until 1994, 12 years after the painting had allegedly been made, and six years after Basquiat’s death. The designer of the 1994 typeface, Lindon Leader, corroborated this.

Moreover, the most obvious question remains. Given that Basquiat’s work is one of the most expensive in history, why would Mumford default on his storage locker payments rather than simply selling the works, which would undoubtedly be worth millions of dollars if genuine?

One year before his death, Mumford allegedly signed a document stating that “at no time in the 1980s or at any other time did I meet with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and at no time did I acquire or purchase any paintings by him”, calling the backstory of how the paintings came to light in question.

The FBI Investigation 

In May, the FBI’s Art Crime Team was investigating the validity of the 25 paintings. A month later, they raided the museum and served employees with a 41-page affidavit for the search warrant, which was based on an investigation that revealed incorrect information about the paintings’ supposed prior ownership. 

Five days after the raid, the board of the museum made the decision to remove Aaron De Groft as its director. With the investigation still ongoing, donors shifting support, and the it’s reputation at stake, the Orlando Museum of Art is making a concerted effort to restore its credibility.