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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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Jasper Johns Fraud Sends Man to Prison

MANHATTAN (CN) - Within a month, Queens-based foundry owner Brian Ramnarine experienced a great honor and a notorious disgrace in the art world.

India's Prime Minister Nahendra Modi accepted a sculpture that Ramnarine cast at a lavish ceremony weeks before his sentencing today for a fraud he perpetrated involving the most iconic work of pop artist Jasper Johns.

U.S. District Judge John Koeltl previously gave Ramnarine special permission to attend the Sept. 28 ceremony at Madison Square Garden where Modi was honored with a "Peace Warrior" statue before a crowd of tens of thousands of people.

On Thursday morning, the same judge condemned Ramnarine, 60, to spend two and a half years behind bars for his audacious attempt to sell an unauthorized copy of Jasper Johns' iconic "Flag" sculpture for $10 million.

The value of the work could actually have led to a much longer sentence.

Johns first made a bronze "Flag" for his friend and fellow artist Bob Rauschenberg in 1960.

Roughly 30 years later, Johns hired Ramnarine's Empire Bronze Art Foundry to make a wax cast for that sculpture, and Ramnarine secretly kept the mold. An early attempt to pass off a fake bronze fell apart when it was brought to Johns for authentication in 1992.

In 2010, Ramnarine created a bogus "1989 Bronze Flag" with a forged signature and date to fool an art gallery of the provenance, and this attempt led to a criminal prosecution. The investigation expanded as prosecutors discovered his bogus works of American pop artist Robert Indiana and Brazilian sculptor Saint Clair Cemin.

Ramnarine admitted to the charges five days into his trial early this year.

For his lawyer Troy Smith, Ramnarine's naive belief that he could score eight figures by duping art buyers on such a well-known work reflected his client's "child-like mind."

"There was little to no chance of his actions being completed," Smith told the court.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Tehrani countered that Ramnarine could and had pulled off such schemes several times since the early 1990s. The foundry owner received probation after pleading guilty to similar charges in 2003, he noted.

"He has been doing this for decades," he said.

In his sentencing brief, Tehrani quoted emotional testimony that Cemin delivered against Ramnarine in January.

Outraged about the "horrendous" patina of his unauthorized work, Cemin spoke of the "terrible" damage such fraud could inflict on an artist's reputation.

"When pieces appear on the market with duplicate numbers, false dates, wrong names, no provenance, completely different finish from any sculpture, it is devastating to me, to my career and to my credibility," Cemin testified.

Such "misrepresentation" of an artist's work is "devastating for my profession," he added.

One sculpture artist Thom Cooney Crawford stepped to Ramnarine's defense in a letter to the judge's chambers.

The letter cast Ramnarine as "a tragic Shakespearean character" whose "flaw in the magnitude of greatness" was his "lack of wisdom."

Staying in his chair at the defense table, Ramnarine had few words to share with the court when Judge Koeltl asked if he had any remarks.

"Yes, Your Honor," he remarked. "I am sorry. I am sorry to bring shame to my family."

Koetl departed well below the sentencing guidelines, which called for a term of between eight and 10 years.

These calculations "somewhat overstate the seriousness of the offense" because Ramnarine was never close to making his millions, Koeltl said.

Ramnarine, 60, must pay $34,250 in restitution to the gallery he defrauded and report to prison on Jan. 9.

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