Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Los Angeles man admits lying to FBI about fake Basquiat painting scam

The FBI seized the fake paintings during a 2022 raid of the Orlando Museum of Art, where they were the majority of a Basquiat exhibit.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A one-time auctioneer agreed to plead guilty to lying to federal investigators about who created the fake Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings he claimed he had found in the storage locker of the late screenwriter Thaddeus Mumford Jr.

The paintings were part of an exhibit, "Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Thaddeus Mumford Jr. Venice Collection," at the Orlando Museum of Art, which was raided by the FBI in 2022. Most of the paintings in the exhibit turned out to be fakes.

Michael Barzman, 45, admitted that he lied when he told FBI agents that nobody had painted the works for him and that he hadn't created them himself, according to a plea agreement filed Tuesday in federal court. In truth, he and a collaborator, only identified as J.F., made the paintings around 2012. He then created a phony provenance for them, claiming they were part of the Mumford storage inventory he had purchased as part of his auctioneering business.

"After decades of cancer treatment, Mr. Barzman was drowning in medical debt," his attorney Joel Koury said in an email. "In desperation, he participated in this scheme to pay for his medical bills so that he didn't lose his health insurance. Since then, he has cooperated and done everything asked of him to make up for his poor judgement."

Basquiat died in 1988 at the age of 27 and his works have become highly sought after since. In 2017, one of his paintings sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million.

According to Barzman's plea agreement, J.F. spent no more than 30 minutes on each painting and sometimes as little as five minutes. They put the finished works, painted on cardboard, outside to expose them to elements so that they would look like they were from the 1980s when Basquiat was active. The two created about 20-30 fake artworks and agreed to split the proceeds 50-50.

Barzman also provided buyers with notarized documents that said the fake paintings had come from Mumford's storage unit.

The catalogue for the Orlando Museum of Art exhibit included an essay that stated that some of the paintings had come from Mumford's storage locker and referenced a sworn statement from a "small-time Los Angeles auctioneer," claiming that he had purchased the contents of Mumford's locker including the paintings on cardboard.

Follow @edpettersson
Categories / Arts, Criminal, National

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.