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Former LA auctioneer to plead guilty in multi-state Basquiat art forgery scheme

Basquiat art fraud
Basquiat art fraud Copyright Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel
Copyright Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel
By Theo FarrantAP
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A former Los Angeles auctioneer has agreed to plead guilty in a cross-country art fraud scheme where he created fake artwork and falsely attributed the paintings to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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Former Los Angeles auctioneer Michael Barzman has agreed to plead guilty in a cross-country art fraud scheme, which involved creating fake artwork and falsely attributing paintings to renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. 

Barzman and another individual identified only as "J.F." created the bogus paintings and agreed to split the sales' proceeds. 

The fake paintings (25 in total) ultimately ended up at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida, forming part of an exhibition titled 'Heroes and Monsters', before they were seized by federal agents last year. 

The scandal led to the museum's CEO's departure after he threatened an art expert and told her to "shut up."

John Raoux/AP
The entrance to an exhibit by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen at the Orlando Museum of Art on June 1, 2022John Raoux/AP

The museum had been the first to display the artwork, and its former director had previously insisted that the artwork was legitimate.

Barzman, who was charged on Tuesday (14 April) in federal court in Los Angeles with making false statements to the FBI during an interview last year, has agreed to plead guilty and faces up to five years in prison. 

His court date has not been scheduled. 

Barzman admitted to the FBI that he made a false provenance for the paintings by claiming in a notarised document that they had been found in television writer Thad Mumford's storage locker. 

Experts noted that the cardboard used in at least one of the pieces included FedEx typeface that wasn't used until 1994, about six years after Basquiat died. 

The artwork had been marketed as painted in 1982. 

The art of forgery

John Raoux/AP Photo
Paintings on display by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat are seen at the Orlando Museum of Art Wednesday, June 1, 2022.John Raoux/AP Photo

Barzman and "J.F." would make the paintings on cardboard with various materials and then "age" them outdoors so the artworks would look like they had been painted in the 1980s, according to Barzman's plea agreement.

Some of the paintings allegedly took five minutes to create. 

"J.F. spent a maximum of 30 minutes on each image and as little as five minutes on others, and then gave them to [Barzman] to sell on eBay," the plea agreement detailed, according to the release. 

"[Barzman] and J.F. agreed to split the money that they made from selling the fraudulent paintings. J.F. and [Barzman] created approximately 20-30 artworks by using various art materials to create colourful images on cardboard."

But on the back of one of the paintings seized from the Orlando museum, a crucial clue remained: A mailing label bearing Barzman's name, painted over.

John Raoux/AP
This 1982 untitled painting by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is seen on display at the Orlando Museum of Art, Wednesday, June 1, 2022,John Raoux/AP

Barzman's attorney, Joel Koury, said in a statement that his client had participated in the scheme because he was drowning in medical debt after battling cancer for decades and was afraid of losing his health insurance. 

"Since then, he has cooperated and done everything asked of him to compensate for his poor judgment," Koury added.

The Orlando museum, which is conducting its own inquiry, says it has tightened whistleblower protections to prevent similar future incidents.

Mark Elliott, the chairman of the Orlando museum's board of trustees, said in a statement that the museum "has recommitted itself to its mission to provide excellence in the visual arts with its exhibitions, collections, and educational programming" in the wake of the scandal.

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If you're interested in seeing real Basquiat paintings, be sure to check out the new exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, showcasing his collaborations with Pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol. Learn more about the exhibitionhere.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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