California Man Pleads Guilty to Modern Art Fraud Scheme

(CN) – A California man pleaded guilty Tuesday to three federal criminal charges after he admitted to selling fake artwork purported to be by artists like Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and to using the fraudulent work as loan collateral.

Philip Righter, 43, agreed to plead guilty to charges of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and tax fraud after admitting to operating the bogus art scheme that attempted to cheat victims out over $6 million. Righter, of West Hollywood, was charged Tuesday in Los Angeles federal court.

(Courtesy of Sotheby’s)

According to the plea agreement, Righter attempted between 2016 and 2018 to sell and profit from fake art pieces he claimed were created by famed artists like Warhol, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and others. Court documents indicate Righter was aware that the pieces were bogus.

Officials said Righter went so far as to use fake names whenever he would make a transaction, most notably after being interviewed by the FBI in 2016 when he tried to sell some of the phony art to a Florida art gallery.

The agreement claims Righter went to great lengths to ensure that the artwork would appear real to the casual observer, using a series of authentication stamps that appeared to be from the artists’ estates. Righter would use these stamps on documentation to trick his victims into believing they were buying legitimate, gallery-approved artwork, officials said.

“To make his fake artwork appear authentic, defendant Righter used these stamps on provenance documents that he created. As to the fake Basquiat artwork, defendant Richter also created fraudulent gallery labels falsely identifying pieces as having been purchased from the Annina Nosei Gallery, (a legitimate gallery for Basquiat art),” according to the plea agreement.

Righter did more than just sell fake artwork, court documents show, as he also used the pieces to secure financial loans worth thousands of dollars.

In one instance in October 2016, Righter admitted using another individual’s name to convince one of his victims to provide him with a $24,000 loan that would be directly wired to Righter. The collateral on this loan, according to documents, was a fraudulent drawing from Jean-Michel Basquiat, complete with a fake letter of authentication that claimed to come directly from Basquiat’s estate.

Righter later defaulted on the loan, and when the victim sought to auction the artwork off to recover the losses, the victim discovered the piece was a fake.

Righter also admitted in Tuesday’s agreement that he included false information on tax documents during the scheme.

Officials said Righter submitted a tax document for 2015 that reported charitable donations of his artwork, as well as claimed a false casualty and theft loss for artwork he claimed was stolen.

The artwork allegedly stolen, as well as the artwork donated, were both fake and virtually worthless. The dishonest tax returns cost the United States government over $100,000, court documents show.

Erik Silber, a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, said the scope of the plea agreement will send an abundantly clear message to people looking to engage in this kind of fraudulent activity.

“Hopefully this will send a message from the FBI’s Art Crime Team and the United States Attorney’s Office that these types of cases will be fully prosecuted,” Silber said during a phone interview.

Righter faces up to 25 years in prison. He also faces art fraud charges in Florida federal court stemming from his alleged activity with a Florida art gallery.

A hearing on those charges is set for Wednesday.

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