The discovery of lost artworks is nothing new for Aaron De Groft, the museum curator who was recently ousted from the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) after the FBI seized a Jean-Michel Basquiat collection of questionable authenticity.
Before coming to Orlando in February 2021, De Groft oversaw the discovery and attribution of numerous works at the Muscarelle Museum of Art. The museum, located on the College of William and Mary campus in Williamsburg, Virginia, hosted an exhibition in 2017 dedicated to the newly attributed artworks War, an expanded version of which is currently on display at the Orlando Museum. Another newly discovered piece, said to be by the American painter Jackson Pollock, was also to be shown at OMA, directed by De Groft.
During De Groft’s tenure as Muscarelle’s director from 2005 to 2018, the museum’s collection doubled, according to the Virginia Gazette. Some of these new acquisitions were previously unremarkable paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries, sold at low prices at auction and then attributed to famous European artists of the period.
De Groft was fired from the Orlando Museum on June 28 after questions surfaced about the Basquiat show. A June 23 affidavit filed by the FBI revealed the collection has been under investigation since 2013. The alleged original owner of the collection denied ever buying the works, and several Basquiat experts believe the collection is fake.
In a brief interview with the Observer via LinkedIn, De Groft said he stands by the work he exhibited in Orlando.
“I have given public lectures on most of the paintings in the OMA, which were questioned and scrutinized at each lecture in front of hundreds of people,” he wrote.
He declined to answer follow-up questions. “I’m not speaking to any media for a while until I’m confirmed,” he wrote.
In Virginia, De Groft directed an exhibition in 2017 titled The art and science of connoisseurship the presented six of the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s new acquisitions, five of which “were acquired at public auctions with different authentications,” according to a 2018 Muscarelle Newsletter.
“The determination of the authenticity of a work of art remains a indispensable requirement for a public collection or exhibition. The lack of connoisseurs is the main reason for the amazing number of fakes and fakes to flow through the highest levels of the international art market,” says the newsletter.
These works were identified primarily 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 piece by Paul Cezanne that they uncredited bought at auction.
How accurate were De Groft’s attributions?
The work has undergone scientific testing to confirm Spike’s attribution. The pigment identification tests were conducted by a duo consisting of a painting restorer from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Kristen Wustholtz, a chemistry professor at William and Mary. “We found an unusual substance, mauveine, that was discovered in the 19th century,” explained Wustholtz, who said tests showed agreement with Spike’s attribution but could not confirm authenticity.
Spike did not respond to calls and emails asking for comment.
“During Aaron De Groft’s tenure at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, a member of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s restoration team jointly analyzed the paint in a painting acquired by the museum to determine the paint’s date. The analysis identified the pigments in the painting but did not relate to the authenticity of the art,” wrote Ellen Morgan Peltz, a spokeswoman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
De Groft was also involved in authenticating a portrait by the 16th-century Italian artist Titian. The art director reviewed archival material that originally disproved Titian’s attribution, finding it had been misread, and conducted scientific tests of pigment size to confirm the portrait’s authenticity, according to a scholarly work chronicling De Groft’s attribution.
Author of various publications on artists such as Italian painters Caravaggio and Michelangelo, De Groft earned a master’s degree in art history and museology 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 curatorial position before becoming Art Director at Mucarelle.
Not everyone agreed with his conclusion about Titian. “The portrait is in the eyes of most people, including my own, a weak work not worthy of Titian himself,” wrote art historian Charles Hope, former director of London’s Warburg Institute, in an email. “I tend to be suspicious of art historians who employ exotic scientific techniques to bolster the credibility of second-rate images. It is an extremely common practice and, in my experience, rarely produces convincing results.”
Many of the works discovered and displayed at Muscarelle during De Groft’s tenure The art and science of connoisseurship are currently being issued by OMA. The current exhibition entitled connoisseurship & collecting, contains 21 paintings and has been running since September last year. “The Muscarelle Show and the OMA Show are basically the same, with the OMA Show expanding,” De Groft wrote via LinkedIn.
The OMA should issue a controversial Pollock
In his OMA lectures, De Groft included discussions of pieces discovered during his time at Muscarelle, including the work of Cezanne and the Portrait of Titian. De Groft was also scheduled to give a lecture entitled “Jackson Pollock’s ‘Lost’ Best Painting: Comstock Pollock, 1950” on a Pollock piece to be exhibited at OMA in January.
“Pollock was an idea that doesn’t exist now,” wrote De Groft. The painting in question was previously co-owned by attorney Pierce O’Donnell, who also co-owns the Basquiat collection, which is currently under investigation by the FBI. O’Donnell represented himself in a court battle over Pollock’s ownership in 2016, saying he’s not technically an owner now but still has an interest in the painting.
O’Donnell confirmed that the Pollock will no longer be exhibited at OMA, adding that an agreement to exhibit was never reached. “The owner decided she didn’t want it on display there,” he said. The work’s attribution to Pollock has been questioned, and O’Donnell revealed that it was not authenticated by the now-defunct Pollock-Krasner Authentication Board or the International 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 certain works are not included in the artist index Catalog catalog raisonné“ said art consultant Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group. When it comes to contemporary artists like Pollock or Basquiat, records of their work are extensively documented in either Catalog workshops or online, he said.
“However, the modern model of the art gallery didn’t exist until the late 19th century. There was no thoroughly organized documentation beforehand,” Levin said, adding that it’s not uncommon for attributions of older works to change over the years as new information comes to light.
It is not yet clear whether this will apply to works discovered and reattributed to the Muscarelle under De Groft’s direction.
“De Groft has always been involved in so-called discoveries,” Levin said. “The question that remains is how accurate has his past performance been in re-attribution of works?”
The Muscarelle Museum of Art and OMA did not respond to requests for comment.