The Orlando Museum of Art is pursuing a potential settlement in its case against ousted museum director Aaron De Groft and the owners of the paintings included in last year’s scandal-ridden “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” show, per new court documents and a report in the Orlando Sentinel Tuesday.
According to the filing with the Orange County circuit court, in August the museum sued De Groft and the group who collectively owned a series of paintings contentiously attributed to the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The museum has alleged that the two parties leveraged the show to lend legitimacy to the works so they could be sold afterwards, despite well-publicized doubts to their attribution. De Groft has been accused of working out a deal to pocket a cut if the works found buyers.
De Groft and defendant Pierce O’Donnell, a Los Angeles-based lawyer, have not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit. In the latest court filing, the museum states that it had allowed the defendants more time to file a response because several individuals, including De Groft, were still seeking Florida legal counsel. Last week, the museum and the defendants petitioned for a postponement of the pre-trial conference with the case’s presiding judge, Judge John E. Jordan, originally scheduled for Tuesday; the postponement was granted.
De Groft and the owners of the supposed Basquiats have denied wrongdoing and maintain that the pieces are real.
In its lawsuit, the museum has claimed significant financial and reputation damage due to its hosting of the 2022 show “Heroes & Monsters”, which was shuttered early in June that year when FBI agents seized its contents—25 paintings attributed to Basquiat—from the premises in view of visitors. De Groft was ousted by the board of trustees only four days after the raid.
De Groft and the paintings’ owners unveiled the paintings to the public in February of 2022, claiming that the works were created around 1982 by Basquiat while he lived and worked in the Los Angeles residence of dealer Larry Gagosian. Per their story, the works were sold without Gagosian’s knowledge to a private collector, who forgot them in a storage unit for decades. An FBI affidavit provided evidence to the contrary, including an interview with the purported original owner of the paintings who swore he had never patronized the famed artist.
Additionally, California auctioneer Michael Barzman admitted in a plea deal earlier this year to working with a partner—identified only as “J.F.”in the court filings— to create and market the paintings.
“J.F. spent a maximum of 30 minutes on each image and as little as five minutes on others, and then gave them to [Barzman] to sell on eBay,” reads the plea agreement. “[Barzman] and J.F. agreed to split the money that they made from selling the Fraudulent Paintings. J.F. and [Barzman] created approximately 20-30 artworks by using various art materials to create colorful images on cardboard.”
O’Donnell and De Groft maintain that Barzman lied in his plea deal to avoid jailtime; he received probation and a fine at his sentencing.
The most recent court filing indicates that the museum will not pursue a jury trial if a settlement can be reached. In explaining his reason for granting the postponement of the trial, the judge stated: “The parties are currently engaged in settlement negotiations, the outcome of which has the potential to dispose of further litigation proceedings.”
Neither the museum nor De Groft and O’Donnell responded to a request for comment at press time.