A Californian auctioneer has admitted to his involvement in forging up to 30 Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) paintings after initially denying all charges. The FBI’s art crime investigators exposed the fraud last year after suspicions were raised during a special exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art.
In February 2022, the ‘Heroes and Monsters’ exhibition in Orlando featured “a rare group” of 25 paintings by the late neo-expressionist artist Basquiat. Storage unit auctioneer Michael Barzman, 45, claimed he had fortuitously found the paintings in 2012 in an abandoned storage lot in North Hollywood that had belonged to the TV writer Thaddeus Mumford Jr. (1951-2018). Barzman even provided a notarized document to buyers before they eventually made their way to the exhibition ten years later.
But all was not as it seemed – the artworks were fakes. Barzman and his co-conspirator, known only by the initials “JF”, had schemed together to make 20 to 30 fraudulent pieces. JF had hastily painted offcuts of cardboard to recreate Basquiat’s enigmatic style. The forgeries were then left outdoors to give them a weathered look, which plausibly dated them to the 1980s.
“JF 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. [They] agreed to split the money that they made,” explained the plea deal Barzman recently signed. Basquiat’s genuine paintings, which explore the distillations of class and social conflict, have previously sold for up to $110 million (£88.5 million).
The fraudulent paintings were first uncovered when a consultant noticed a FedEx label on the reverse of one painting that used a typeface not introduced until 1994, six years after Basquiat’s death. Mumford’s family also maintain that he had never purchased any paintings by the artist.
In June 2022, the FBI’s art crime team raided the Orlando museum and seized the entire ‘Basquiat’ collection as part of its provenance investigation. The scandal prompted the museum’s board to fire its director Aaron De Groft, who reportedly had a history of collecting works with contested provenance it later emerged. In January 2023 the American Alliance of Museums placed the museum on probation, threatening the institution’s accreditation.
After initially denying the charges brought against him, Barzman has now signed a plea deal admitting to creating the paintings with JF, as well as fabricating their provenance. Barzman could face a maximum penalty of five years in prison if found guilty.
“For decades Mr Barzman was unable to get health insurance while battling cancer. Drowning in debt, he panicked and joined this scheme and lied when initially confronted,” claimed Barzman’s attorney, Joel Koury. “More recently, he has fully cooperated with law enforcement to try to rectify his initial poor judgment.”