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LA auctioneer admits helping create fake Basquiats

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In another crazy twist in the history of the Florida museum whose exhibit of fake Basquiats was attacked by the FBI last yeara Los Angeles-based auctioneer confessed to not only concealing the provenance of the artwork, but also helping to create the forgeries.

Today, April 11, Michael Barzman, 45, of North Hollywood, was charged with making false statements to the FBI during a 2022 interview. Barzman agreed to plead guilty to the crime and admitted to producing the fake works included in an exhibition of works attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA). According to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, in 2012 Barzman and a co-conspirator identified in court documents as “JF” created between 20 and 30 works of art and agreed to share all of them. the profits they made from the sale of the copies.

“JF spent a maximum of 30 minutes on each image and as little as five minutes on the others, then gave them to [Barzman] sell on eBay,” the plea agreement reads.

The FBI raided the museum in June 2022 and seized 25 pieces, setting off a chain of events that ultimately led to the ousting of OMA director and chief executive Aaron De Groft, who appeared to defend the provenance of the artworks even as the investigation dragged on. was intensifying. (De Groft is not facing charges at this time.) Two months later, in August, the museum’s acting director and chairman of the board have resigned from their positions in the same week.

But prior to the FBI’s intervention, the story provided to those who inquired about the works was different: the works displayed in the OMA exhibit Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat were found in 2012 in a Los Angeles storage unit belonging to the late Hollywood screenwriter Thaddeus Mumford. After Mumford failed to pay his rental fee for the space, two ‘treasure hunters’ from the storage unit bought the trove of artwork for a total of $15,000 – a small price to pay given the lot’s estimated value of $100 million and its impeccable provenance: The paintings, it has been said, were made in 1982 while Basquiat was staying with dealer Larry Gagosian in Los Angeles before a exhibition at the gallery. Instead of keeping his promise, the anecdote goes, Basquiat sold the works to Mumford for $5,000.

In his plea agreement, Barzman confesses to having fabricated the provenance of the artworks, claiming in a notarized document provided to buyers of the paintings that the artworks were discovered in the Mumford unit. What was true, however, was that in 2012 Barzman was running a business based on acquiring and auctioning off the contents of unpaid rental storage units.

Even before the OMA show opened in 2022, the artworks were dubbed as models by a keen-eyed former designer for FedEx who spotted company typeface on the cardboard on which one of the paintings was made. Although Basquiat often worked on cardboard and other found remains, this particular FedEx typeface was not released until 1994, six years after his death.

The US Attorney’s Office said Barzman initially denied creating the paintings even though he admitted to lying about the artwork’s storage locker backstory – and, remarkably, continued to lying after FBI agents showed him the back of one of the seized cardboard paintings in which his name was visible on a mailing label that had been repainted.

“At the time of the interview, [Barzman] knew that he and JF created the paintings and that his statements to the contrary were false,” the plea agreement reads. “His statement that he did not do the paintings or have someone else do them for him was material to the activities and decisions of the FBI and was likely to influence the decisions and activities of the agency.”

In response to Hyperallergic Requesting comment regarding today’s plea agreement, OMA shared a statement from Board Chairman Mark Elliott.

“The Orlando Museum of Art awaits the conclusion of the investigation and hopes that justice will be served for all victims,” ​​Elliott said.

“We have taken and will continue to take steps that realign the institution with its mission,” the statement continued. “These actions include supporting employees affected by the exposure and investigation, adopting new personnel policies with enhanced protections for whistleblowers, meeting with numerous community members and leaders, training to governance for the Board of Trustees and working with the American Alliance of Museums to repair the status of the institution. .”

With the investigation closed and all charges laid, the OMA “looks forward to sharing [its] history regarding the works in question,” the museum’s statement concludes.

Barzman could face up to five years in federal prison for making false statements to a government agency. A representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed in an email to Hyperallergic that Barzman was not accused of forgery. The investigation is ongoing.

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