Gallery Owner Under Fire for Jasper Johns Fraud

MANHATTAN (CN) – A Canadian gallery that paid $800,000 for stolen Jasper Johns artwork has brought a federal complaint against the New York seller it says tried to legitimize the heisted pieces.

Filed on Jan. 11 in the Southern District of New York, the lawsuit takes aim at Fred Dorfman, a Chelsea art gallery owner described as the mastermind of a scheme that netted him nearly $6 million in commissions from sales of stolen Jasper Johns drawings.

Equinox Gallery, of Vancouver, British Columbia, says Dorfman wanted access to Johns’ works so he offered to independently represent the artist’s longtime studio assistant, James Meyer.

Noting that they never sold a single Meyer artwork – except those that Dorfman bought himself – Equinox claims that Dorfman always had his eye on Johns’ works – namely those that the artist wanted to destroy rather than include in his oeuvre.

Dorfman was never charged in the Johns fraud, but a federal judge sentenced Meyer to a year and half in prison for the scheme in 2015, plus $17.4 million in restitution and forfeiture.

Equinox quotes Meyer as calling Dorfman “architect of the scheme and its primary beneficiary.”

Even in his confession, Meyer allegedly noted how “Dorfman repeatedly asked [him] if he had access to Mr. Johns’ discarded and/or unfinished artworks that were not intended for sale, and pressured him to obtain as much of these artworks as he could so they could sell them together.”

The gallery owner has not returned a request for comment, but Equinox notes that other collectors have gone after it as well. It says Dorfman and his businesses settled with one buyer that brought a civil complaint accusing them of violating federal anti-racketeering law.

Equinox says Meyer stole the Johns artwork it bought when he was helping the artist move from his Manhattan apartment on East 63rd Street to his bucolic Sharon, Connecticut, home in 1995 and 1996.

When Dorfman agreed to sell these pieces, according to the complaint, he did so “knowing that these pieces were stolen, and in some instances had actually been fished from the trash.”

Equinox says the gallery “needed a story legitimizing their provenance.”

“To buttress this story, the Dorfman Defendants, among other things, drafted false affidavits for Meyer to sign (to be presented to the buyers, including Plaintiff here) swearing: (i) that the Stolen Works were gifts, (ii) that they were recorded in Johns’s archives, (iii) that they were authentic works, and (iv) that Johns had authorized Meyer to sell them,” the complaint states. “Of course, as the Dorfman Defendants knew at all times, these statements were false.”

Equinox says Dorfman also provided photographs purporting to show the stolen drawings listed among other legitimate Johns works in the artist’s studio ledger, and printed counterfeit “Johns” labels to affix to the back of the stolen drawings.

When Equinox bought one of the stolen pieces for $800,000 in January 2008, Dorfman earned a $470,000 commission on the sale, according to the complaint. Equinox notes that the sum “dwarf[ed]” the standard 10 percent to 25 percent commission that galleries earn on such sales.

Equinox Gallery’s lawsuit calls the piece of artwork it bought “virtually worthless and unsaleable where the market does not consider it to be authentic because it will never be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonne for Johns’s works.”

Alleging fraud, violations of RICO, breach of warranty and other claims, Equinox Gallery rescission of the cost of sale, plus seeks compensatory and consequential damages. The Gallery is represented by Judd Grossman.

A pretrial conference for the case has been set for April 6, 2017.