Sunday, 14 Apr 2024

Auctioneer to plead guilty for sales of fake Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings

A former auctioneer has agreed to plead guilty to creating dozens of fake Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, which were eventually exhibited by a major art museum.

Michael Barzman, 45, of North Hollywood, California, was charged with lying to FBI agents about a scheme to sell counterfeit Basquiat paintings, US Attorney E Martin Estrada’s office said on Tuesday.

According to the plea agreement signed by Barzman in March, he collaborated with an an accomplice, identified only as JF, to create the paintings in 2012 and split the profits 50/50.

Basquiat’s artwork has fetched record sums of money in recent years, with one painting selling for $110.5million at Sotheby’s in 2017.

‘JF spent a maximum of 30 minutes on each image and as little as five minutes on others, and then gave them to defendant to sell on eBay,’ the court document reads. Barzman and JF created about 20-30 paintings in 2012 on pieces of cardboard – some of which were taken from FedEx packages sent to the swindler’s home.

‘After finishing the images, defendant and JF placed them outdoors to expose them to the elements and thus create an aged appearance consistent with works made in the 1980s when Basquiat was painting,’ prosecutors said.

Barzman and JF then worked to establish a fraudulent provenance for the paintings. Provenance is the record of ownership of a piece of artwork dating back to the original artist.

Barzman was able to do this through his auctioneering business, which focused on purchasing and reselling the contents of storage units.

Barzman’s business purchased a storage unit previously belonging to Thaddeus Mumford Jr, a prominent screenwriter from the 1970s through 1990s who worked on television shows including M*A*S*H, Home Improvement, and The Cosby Show.

Barzman claimed he found the fake Basquiat pieces in Mumford’s storage unit after he died in 2018. After they were sold on TKTKTK, they were eventually exhibited as part of the ‘Thaddeus Mumford, Jr Venice Collection.’

When FBI agents interviewed Barzman in June, 2022, he repeated this story, telling them the paintings ‘might have been’ Basquiat’s. At a later interview that August, he told the FBI ‘I was like almost 90% sure they did.’

The paintings eventually made their way to the Orlando Museum of Art, where they were exhibited as part of a Basquiat collection from February 12 to June 30, 2022.

However, critics quickly pointed out that the paintings might be fake.

The museum’s art director, Aaron De Groft, insisted that the pieces were legitimate. ‘My reputation is at stake as well,’ he told the New York Times.

The FBI eventually raided the Orlando Museum of Art, seizing the counterfeit paintings on June 24, 2022 – just six days before the exhibit was set to close. De Groft was fired five days later.

In the plea agreement, prosecutors revealed that FBI agents noticed another startling clue about one painting’s authenticity: ‘agents pointed out that a shipping label bearing defendant’s name and former address was attached to the cardboard on which the painting had been created. There was dried paint on top of the shipping label.’

Barzman eventually admitted to the scheme after another interview in October 2022. He faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison for the charge of lying to a government agency.

‘Mr Barzman was drowning in medical debt after battling cancer for decades,’ the counterfeiter’s attorney stated. ‘In desperation, he participated in this scheme because he was afraid of losing his health insurance. Since then, he has cooperated and done everything asked of him to compensate for his poor judgement.’

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