Museum director responsible for seizing Basquiat collection has already discovered supposedly lost art

The Orlando Museum of Art Connoisseur and collector Exposure. Courtesy of Orlando Museum of Art

Discovering lost works of art is nothing new for Aaron De Groft, the recently ousted museum director of the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) after a Jean-Michel Basquiat collection of dubious authenticity was seized by the FBI.

Prior to coming to Orlando in February 2021, De Groft oversaw the discovery and attribution of many works to the Muscarelle Museum of Art. Located on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the museum held an exhibition in 2017 of the newly awarded works of art, an expanded version of which is currently on display at the Orlando Museum. Another newly discovered piece, supposedly by the American painter Jackson Pollock, was also to be presented at the OMA under the direction of De Groft.

During De Groft’s time as director of the Muscarelle from 2005 to 2018, the museum’s collection doubled in size, according to the Virginia Gazette. Some of these new acquisitions were previously mundane paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries, bought at cheap auctions and then attributed to famous European artists of that period.

De Groft was fired from the Orlando museum on June 28 after questions arose about Basquiat’s show. An affidavit filed June 23 by the FBI revealed that the collection had been under investigation since 2013. The collection’s alleged original owner denied ever purchasing the works and several Basquiat experts believe the collection is fake. .

In a brief interview with the Observer via LinkedIn, De Groft said he was supportive of the work he exhibited in Orlando.

“I gave public lectures on most of the paintings at the OMA to be questioned and examined in front of hundreds of people at each lecture,” he wrote.

He declined to answer follow-up questions. “I’m not talking to any media for a while until I’m vindicated,” he wrote.

In Virginia, De Groft supervised an exhibition in 2017 title The art and science of craftsmanship this featured six of the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s new acquisitions, five of which “were acquired at public auction with different authentications”, according to a 2018 Muscarelle newsletter.

“Establishing the authenticity of a work of art remains a sine qua non for public collection or exhibition. The scarcity of connoisseurs today is the main cause of the astonishing multitude of counterfeits and counterfeits flowing through the highest levels of the international art market,” read the newsletter.

These works were primarily identified by former Muscarelle curator John Spike, who worked with De Groft to secure newly discovered pieces for the museum, according to Artsy. The two worked together to identify a 19th century Paul Cézanne piece, which they purchased without attribution at auction.

How accurate were De Groft’s attributions?

The work underwent scientific testing in order to reaffirm Spike’s attribution. The pigment identification tests were carried out by a duo consisting of a Colonial Williamsburg Foundation paint conservator and Kristen Wustholtz, a chemistry professor at William and Mary. “We found an unusual substance, mauveine, which was discovered in the 19th century,” explained Wustholtz, who said tests showed consistency with Spike’s attribution but could not verify authenticity. .

Spike did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

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

De Groft was also involved in the authentication of a 16th century portrait by the Italian artist Titian. Art director examined archival documents that originally refuted Titian’s attribution and found they had been misread, in addition to undertaking scientific pigment size tests to confirm authenticity of the portrait, according to an academic article reporting De Groft’s attribution.

De Groft, who is the author of various publications on artists such as Italian painters Caravaggio and Michelangelo, earned an MA in art history and museum studies from the University of South Carolina and a Ph.D. . in Art History from Florida State University. He directed the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, where he also held a position as curator, before becoming artistic director at Mucarelle.

Not everyone agreed with his conclusion regarding Titian. “The portrait is, in the eyes of most people, mine included, a weak work unworthy of Titian himself,” wrote art historian Charles Hope, former director of the Warburg Institute in London, in an email. “I tend to be wary of art historians who use exotic scientific techniques to bolster the credibility of second-rate images. This is an extremely common practice and in my experience it rarely produces convincing results.

Many works discovered at the Muscarelle during De Groft’s tenure and presented in The art and science of craftsmanship are currently on display at the OMA. The current exhibition, titled Connoisseur & Collector, contains 21 paintings and has been ongoing since September of last year. “The Muscarelle show and the OMA show are basically the same, with the OMA show expanded,” De Groft wrote via LinkedIn.

The OMA was supposed to expose a disputed Pollock

In his OMA lectures, De Groft included discussions of pieces discovered during his time at the Muscarelle, including the work of Cézanne and the portrait of Titian. De Groft was also scheduled to give a lecture titled “Jackson Pollock’s Best ‘Lost’ Painting: Comstock Pollock, 1950”, regarding a work by Pollock that was to be exhibited at the OMA in January.

“Pollock was an idea not happening now,” De Groft wrote. The painting in question previously belonged to attorney Pierce O’Donnell, who is also co-owner of the Basquiat collection currently under investigation by the FBI. O’Donnell represented himself in 2016 in litigation over the ownership of Pollock and said he was no longer technically the owner, but remained involved in the painting.

O’Donnell confirmed that the Pollock will no longer be on display at the OMA, adding that an agreement for the display was never reached. “The owner decided she didn’t want her exposed there,” he said. The work’s attribution to Pollock has been questioned, and O’Donnell revealed that it had not been authenticated by the former Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board or the International Foundation for Research in Art ( IFAR). This was confirmed by Dr Sharon Flescher, Executive Director of IFAR, in an interview with The Observer.

“I know that a specific work is not included in the official list of the artist catalog reasoned“, said art advisor Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group. When it comes to contemporary artists like Pollock or Basquiat, recordings of their work are widely documented either in catalog reasoned Where online, he said.

“However, the modern model of the art gallery did not exist until the end of the 19th century. There was no prior thorough organized documentation,” Levin said, adding that it is not uncommon for attributions of older works to change over the years as new information comes to light.

We still do not know if this will be the case for the works discovered and reattributed to the Muscarelle under the leadership of De Groft.

“De Groft has a history of being involved in so-called discoveries,” Levin said. “The question that remains is how accurate has his past performance of reassigning the works been? »

The Muscarelle Museum of Art and the OMA did not respond to requests for comment.

Museum director responsible for seizing Basquiat collection has already discovered supposedly lost art


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