Museum Director Responsible for Seized Basquiat Collection Has a Previous History of Discovering So-Called Lost Art

Old master paintings exhibited at the Orlando Museum of Art on red walls with wooden floors
The Orlando Museum of Art’s Connoisseurship and Accumulating Exhibition. Courtesy of the Orlando Museum of Art

Discovering missing artwork is nothing new for Aaron De Groft, the museum director recently ousted from the Orlando Museum of Artwork (OMA) right after a Jean-Michel Basquiat collection of questionable authenticity was seized by the FBI.

Ahead of coming to Orlando in February 2021, De Groft oversaw the discovery and attribution of various functions at the Muscarelle Museum of Artwork. Situated on the campus of the University of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the museum held an exhibition in 2017 dedicated to freshly attributed artwork, an expanded model of which is at this time exhibited at the Orlando museum. An additional newly found out piece, supposedly by American painter Jackson Pollock, was also scheduled to be demonstrated at OMA under De Groft’s management.

All through De Groft’s time as director of the Muscarelle from 2005 to 2018, the museum’s assortment doubled in measurement, according to the Virginia Gazette. Some of these new acquisitions were being earlier unremarkable paintings from the 16th century to the 19th century, purchased at auctions for small charges and then attributed to famed European artists from that time period of time.

De Groft was fired from the Orlando museum on June 28 just after concerns arose about the Basquiat clearly show. An affidavit filed on June 23 by the FBI unveiled the selection has been beneath investigation considering that 2013. The purported primary operator of the collection denied ever paying for the works and several Basquiat industry experts believe that the collection to be bogus.

In a brief job interview with the Observer via LinkedIn, De Groft stated he stands by the function he exhibited in Orlando.

“I gave community lectures on most of the paintings at the OMA to be questioned and scrutinized ahead of hundreds of people today at every single lecture,” he wrote.

He declined to solution observe up concerns. “I am not speaking to any media for a when till I am vindicated,” he wrote. 

In Virginia, De Groft oversaw a 2017 exhibition titled The Artwork and Science of Connoisseurship that showcased six of the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s new acquisitions, five of which “were obtained at public auctions with distinctive authentications,” in accordance to a 2018 Muscarelle newsletter.

“Establishing the authenticity of a get the job done of artwork remains a sine qua non for a general public selection or exhibition. The scarcity of connoisseurs right now is the principal induce of the astonishing multitude of fakes and forgeries pouring as a result of the maximum amounts of the intercontinental art market place,” go through the e-newsletter.

These is effective were generally determined by previous Muscarelle curator John Spike, who labored with De Groft to safe recently learned items for the museum, according to Artsy. The two worked jointly to discover a 19th century Paul Cezanne piece, which they acquired unattributed at auction.

How correct had been De Groft’s attributions?

The perform underwent scientific assessments in order to reaffirm Spike’s attribution. Pigment identification testing was performed by a duo consisting of a painting conservator from the Colonial Williamsburg Basis and Kristen Wustholtz, a chemistry professor at William and Mary. “We found an strange substance, mauveine, that was uncovered in the 19th century,” defined Wustholtz, who mentioned the testing showed consistency with Spike’s attribution but could not confirm authenticity.

Spike did not reply to cellphone phone calls and e-mails requesting remark.

“During Aaron De Groft’s tenure at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, a member of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s conservation team collaboratively analyzed the paint in a painting acquired by the museum to recognize the paint’s date. The evaluation identified the pigments in the painting but did not pertain to the authentication of the art,” wrote Ellen Morgan Peltz, a spokeswoman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

De Groft was also associated with the authentication of a 16th century portrait by Italian artist Titian. The artwork director reviewed archival material that at first refuted Titian’s attribution and discovered it experienced been misinterpret, in addition to undertaking scientific testing on pigment measurement to affirm the portrait’s authenticity, in accordance to an academic paper chronicling De Groft’s attribution.

De Groft, who has authored various publications on artists this kind of as Italian painters Caravaggio and Michelangelo, acquired a masters in art historical past and museum studies from the University of South Carolina and a Ph.D. in art heritage from Florida Condition University. He headed the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, where he also held a curatorial situation, right before getting to be artwork director at the Mucarelle.

Not everybody agreed with his summary relating to the Titian. “The portrait is, to most people’s eyes like my have, a feeble get the job done unworthy of Titian himself,” wrote artwork historian Charles Hope, former director of London’s Warburg Institute, in an electronic mail. “I tend to be suspicious of artwork historians using unique scientific techniques to raise the trustworthiness of second-rate images. It is an particularly frequent exercise, and seldom, in my practical experience, creates convincing benefits.”

A lot of of the performs uncovered at the Muscarelle all through De Groft’s tenure and showcased in The Artwork and Science of Connoisseurship are now remaining exhibited at OMA. The ongoing exhibition, entitled Connoisseurship & Amassing, incorporates 21 paintings and has been operating considering that September of last 12 months. “The Muscarelle exhibit and the OMA exhibit are in essence the very same with the OMA demonstrate getting expanded,” De Groft wrote by way of LinkedIn.

The OMA was intended to exhibit a disputed Pollock

In his OMA lectures , De Groft integrated conversations of items identified in the course of his time at the Muscarelle, together with the Cezanne function and Titian portrait. De Groft was also scheduled to give a lecture named ‘Jackson Pollock’s “Lost” Finest Painting: Comstock Pollock, 1950,’ about a Pollock piece that was supposed to be exhibited at OMA in January.

“Pollock was an notion that is not happening now,” wrote De Groft. The portray in dilemma was formerly co-owned by law firm Pierce O’Donnell, who is also aspect-proprietor of the Basquiat assortment at the moment underneath FBI investigation. O’Donnell represented himself in 2016 in a courtroom dispute over the Pollock’s possession, and stated that he now isn’t technically an proprietor but remains included with the painting.

O’Donnell verified that the Pollock is no more time likely to be exhibited at OMA, incorporating that an agreement for the exhibition had hardly ever been arrived at. “The owner made a decision that she did not want it exhibited there,” he claimed. The work’s attribution to Pollock has been identified as into concern, and O’Donnell unveiled that it has not been authenticated by the now-defunct Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board or the Intercontinental Foundation for Art Research (IFAR). This was confirmed by Dr. Sharon Flescher, executive director of IFAR, in an interview with the Observer.

“I know that unique get the job done is not provided in the artist’s official catalogue raisonné,” said artwork advisor Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group. When it arrives to modern day artists like Pollock or Basquiat, information of their function are thoroughly documented both in catalogue raisonnés or on the internet, he reported.

“However, the modern product of the art gallery didn’t exist till the late nineteenth century. There was no prior thorough structured documentation,” reported Levin, adding that it isn’t unusual for attributions of older will work to adjust through the several years as new information and facts comes to gentle.

It’s continue to unclear no matter if this will be the case for will work found out and reattributed at the Muscarelle underneath De Groft’s leadership. 

“De Groft has a heritage of staying included with so-named discoveries,” said Levin. “The dilemma that remains is how accurate has his past general performance of reattributing functions been?”

The Muscarelle Museum of Artwork and OMA did not respond to requests for remark.

Museum Director Responsible for Seized Basquiat Collection Has a Previous History of Discovering So-Called Lost Art