Aaron De Groft, the director and chief executive of the Orlando Museum of Art, was removed from his post Tuesday night, just days after the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided the museum and seized 25 works that had been attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat but whose authenticity has been called into question.
Board members met early Tuesday to discuss the fallout of Friday’s FBI raid. The meeting ended with the board deciding to fire De Groft, according to museum employees who requested anonymity because they had been previously warned that anyone talking about the news media would be terminated.
De Groft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The chairwoman of the museum’s board, Cynthia Brumback, said in a statement that “effective immediately, Aaron De Groft is no longer director and C.EO. of Orlando Museum of Art.” She added that the museum’s trustees were “extremely concerned” about several issues regarding the exhibition, “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat.”
Among them, she said in the statement, was “the recent revelation of an inappropriate email correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition.”
The New York Times reported last week that an affidavit filed to secure the search warrant, which was signed by Elizabeth Rivas, a special agent for the FBI, had quoted an email in which De Groft appeared to threaten an academic who had been hired by the owners of the artworks to assess them, and who later expressed qualms about being associated with the exhibit.
The expert was identified in the affidavit only as “Expert-2,” but an associate professor of art at the University of Maryland, Jordana Moore Saggese, confirmed to The Times that she was “Expert-2.”
Saggese, who was paid $60,000 for her written report, contacted the museum and asked that her name was not associated with the exhibition, the affidavit said. At that point, the affidavit said, De Groft sent her an email firing her and threatening to disclose the payment and share details about it with her employer.
“You want us to put out there you got $60 grand to write this?” De Groft wrote, according to the affidavit. “Okay then. Shut up. You took the money. Stop being holier than thou.” De Groft, still insisting the paintings were genuine, then threatened to share the details of that payment with the university: “Do your academic thing and stay in your limited lane.”
“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,” Brumback said in the statement.
The FBI raid, on June 24, came just days before the planned June 30 closing of the Basquiat exhibit, after which the works were scheduled to be exhibited in Italy.
The artworks in the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition, which opened in February, were said by the museum and their owners to have been recovered from a Los Angeles storage unit in 2012.
The Times reported that one of the artworks being shown was painted on the back of a cardboard shipping box bearing an instruction to “Align top of FedEx Shipping Label here,” in a typeface that a designer who worked for Federal Express said had not been used until 1994 — six years after Basquiat’s death.
The search affidavit stated that “forensic information indicates that the on which one painting was made contains a typeface that was created in 1994, after Basquiat had passed, thereby calling into question the authenticity of at least one cardboard piece.”
Both De Groft and the owners of the artworks had said that the works were made by Basquiat in 1982 and sold for $5,000 to a now-deceased television screenwriter, Thad Mumford, who they said had put them into a storage unit and forgotten about them. They were discovered when the storage unit’s contents were seized for nonpayment of rent and auctioned off in 2012, they said.
But the affidavit says that in 2017, a year before his death, Mumford signed a declaration in the presence of federal agents 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.”