Ex-director Aaron De Groft countersues Orlando Museum of Art

MELANIE METZ/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

Just days after court documents indicated that Orlando Museum of Art and the defendants were working on a settlement in the museum’s lawsuit over its “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition, former museum director Aaron De Groft has countersued the institution.

In an email to the Orlando Sentinel, De Groft said he was “going to war to get my good name back, my professional standing and personal and professional exoneration.”

De Groft was fired by the museum’s board in June 2022, shortly after the FBI raided the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition and seized art purportedly by acclaimed artist Jean-Michel Basquiat as part of a fraud investigation. The museum’s lawsuit, filed in August against De Groft and the owners of the artwork, claims they colluded to use the exhibition to raise the value of the art and thereby increase personal profits by selling the art later.

Orlando Museum of Art, defendants negotiating lawsuit settlement

“I have kept my head down and suffered slings and arrows and humiliations when I did nothing wrong and all everyone else did was lie, misreport, make things up, get so much wrong,” De Groft wrote to the Sentinel.

In his countersuit, De Groft strikes at the center of the museum’s case: That he and the owners knew the artwork was fraudulent.

“OMA’s lawsuit against Defendant is based on the false premise that the 25 Basquiat paintings in the exhibition Heroes & Monsters (“Exhibition”) were fakes, Defendant actually knew they were fakes, but Defendant nonetheless represented to OMA that they were authentic because he wanted to sell them and receive a hefty sales commission from the owners,” his filing begins. “There is not a kernel of truth to this absurd allegation.”

Despite lawsuit’s claims, Orlando Museum of Art tight-lipped about how much damage it has suffered

De Groft goes on to accuse the museum of firing him illegally and orchestrating a campaign “to destroy him.”

A museum spokeswoman told the Sentinel, “At the advice of counsel, the Orlando Museum of Art is not offering any comment on this pending litigation.”

While the museum’s original suit says De Groft breached his fiduciary duty to the museum by failing to follow the proper procedures to authenticate the art, his countersuit points the finger at former board chair Cynthia Brumback, who left the organization last December.

De Groft says Brumback never told the board of trustees about an FBI subpoena received by the museum — a claim that has been corroborated by several former trustees.

“As a result, the Board was completely in the dark about such an extraordinary, unprecedented and dangerous situation,” De Groft’s suit says. “The Board should have been immediately informed by Brumback. Brumback outrageously breached her fiduciary duty in masterminding this cover-up.”

An Orlando Sentinel reporter left voicemail and email messages for Brumback Wednesday evening, but they were not immediately returned.

The countersuit, filed Tuesday, also takes aim at Akerman, the law firm retained by the museum to investigate the affair and currently representing the institution in the lawsuit. De Groft says Akerman — as well as the FBI — advised him and Brumback there was no reason to cancel the “Heroes & Monsters” exhibition, thereby fortifying his belief the paintings were authentic.

The countersuit notes the original legal filing shows that Akerman was aware the firm had been engaged to investigate the exhibition without the knowledge of the full board.

“Akerman thus became a co-conspirator with Brumback in the coverup and flagrantly breached its fiduciary duty to OMA,” De Groft’s countersuit states.

The countersuit calls for Akerman to recuse itself from the lawsuit because Florida ethics laws prohibit lawyers from being both witnesses to the issue at hand as well as advocates for one party in the dispute.

“If Akerman does not immediately withdraw, Defendant will file a motion for their disqualification,” De Groft’s suit threatens.

Orlando Museum of Art said it filed its suit because the actions of De Groft and the owners harmed both its reputation and finances. De Groft’s countersuit says he has suffered the same fate because of the museum’s failings.

“OMA’s lawsuit is a transparent public relations stunt intended to save face and to wrongfully make Defendant a scapegoat for the FBI’s seizure of the 25 paintings,” the countersuit states.

While De Groft did not specify what sort of damages he sought beyond the legal category of “in excess of $50,000,” the countersuit indicates big money could be in play.

“Defendant’s conclusion that the 25 Basquiats are authentic will be proven at trial, thereby dealing a much-deserved, fatal blow to OMA’s lawsuit and exposing [the museum] to tens of millions of dollars for its outrageous treatment of [De Groft] and deliberately trashing his excellent reputation,” the suit says. “Acts have consequences, and intentionally malicious acts are punished harshly. An Orlando jury will teach OMA a lesson that it will never forget.”

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