Orlando Museum of Art director fired after FBI seizes ‘purported’ Basquiat paintings

The director of the Orlando Museum of Art was fired Tuesday, five days after the FBI seized 25 purportedly fake paintings on display there with contested attribution to the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Aaron De Groft lost his job after agents raided the Florida museum Friday and presented employees a 41-page affidavit for the search warrant based on an investigation which found “false information relating to the alleged prior ownership of the paintings,” The New York Times reported.

Citing anonymous museum employees, the Times reported the museum’s board of trustees met Tuesday morning to discuss the controversy around the director and the show, and subsequently fired De Groft.

The museum did not immediately respond to USA TODAY for comment.

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“(The Board) is extremely concerned about several issues with regard to the ‘Heroes and Monsters’ exhibition, including the recent revelation of an inappropriate e-mail correspondence sent to academia concerning the authentication of some of the artwork in the exhibition,” the board released in a statement to Orlando Weekly. “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.”

According to the Times, De Groft’s firing stemmed from the questionable exhibit, purporting to show the more than two dozen uncovered Basquiat paintings. The story of the paintings has been called into question on various levels, the outlet reported.

It also reported the following: A man who is said to have purchased the paintings directly from Basquiat told federal agents he never met the late painter. A brand mark on the cardboard canvases on which paintings were done seems to suggest they weren’t made at the time that the exhibition claims. The Los Angeles art dealer who was providing a living space to the artist, who died in 1988, at the time the paintings were allegedly made said he found the whole story unlikely.

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Jordana Saggese, an art expert and professor at the University of Maryland, objected to the way her name was used in the exhibit, claiming that the museum misrepresented her statements to establish the artworks as legitimate, Orlando Weekly reported. She also said an interview with her contained in the exhibit catalog was fabricated.

When she brought these concerns to De Groft, he told her to “shut up” and “stop acting holier than thou,” according to an FBI affidavit.

The Times cited an FBI subpoena seeking “any and all” messages between museum employees and the owners of the paintings “purported to be by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.” Agents also asked for all communication between the museum and its art world experts and messages from the museum’s board of trustees, according to the Times.

The FBI declined to comment on the investigation, or its status, the Times reported. If authentic, the Basquiat paintings would be worth about $100 million, according to Putnam Fine Art and Antique Appraisals, which assessed them for the owners.

Natalie Neysa Alund covers trending news for USA TODAY. Reach her at nalund@usatoday.com and follow her on Twitter @nataliealund.