Man agrees to plead guilty in Basquiat artwork fraud scheme

LOS ANGELES (AP) – 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, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

The paintings ultimately wound up at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida before they were seized by federal agents last year in a scandal that roiled the museum and led to its CEO’s departure after he threatened an art expert and told her to “shut up.”

Basquiat, a Neo-expressionist painter whose success came during the 1980s, lived and worked in New York before he died in 1988 at age 27 from a drug overdose. The Orlando Museum of Art scandal came in 2022 when a federal raid ended in the seizure of 25 paintings whose authenticity had been in question for a decade. The museum had been the first to display the artwork, and its former director had previously insisted the artwork was legitimate.

Defendant Michael Barzman, 45, was charged Tuesday in federal court in Los Angeles with making false statements to the FBI during an interview last year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release. He has agreed to plead guilty and faces up to five years in prison.

Barzman’s court date has not been scheduled. Barzman admitted that he and another man, identified only as “J.F.” in court papers, had created the bogus paintings and agreed to split the sales’ proceeds.

“Mr. Barzman was drowning in medical debt after battling cancer for decades,” his attorney Joel Koury said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”

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.

Barzman admitted to the FBI – after repeated denials in interviews with federal agents, leading to Tuesday’s felony charge – that he made a false provenance for the paintings by claiming in a notarized document that they had been found in television writer Thad Mumford’s storage locker.

Barzman previously ran an auction business where he bought and resold the contents of unpaid storage units. He bought Mumford’s locker in 2012.

Mumford, who died in 2018, told investigators he had never owned any Basquiat art, and the paintings were not in the unit the last time he had opened it.

Experts pointed out 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, according to a federal search warrant. The artwork had been marketed as painted in 1982.

Barzman and “J.F.” would make the paintings on cardboard with various materials and then “age” them outdoors so the artwork would look like it was painted in the 1980s, according to Barzman’s plea agreement.

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.

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