A Los Angeles auctioneer has testified to federal authorities that he assisted in the creation of forgeries that were shown at the Orlando Museum of Art last year under the guise of previously discovered works by the renowned artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
On Tuesday, the Central District of California U.S. attorney’s office filed court documents announcing Michael Barzman’s guilty plea, nine months after the FBI raided the museum and seized 25 paintings from its Basquiat exhibit, “Heroes & Monsters.”
Prosecutors said that Mr. Barzman, 45, from North Hollywood, acknowledged to their involvement in the creation of between twenty and thirty forgeries that were sold under the guise of being by the artist Basquiat.
The prosecution claimed that Mr. Barzman collaborated extensively with a guy they only referred to by his initials, J.F. The colleague, as stated in the plea deal, spent between five and thirty minutes on each item.
According to court documents, the couple then left the artworks outdoors to weather, making it seem as if the pieces had been made decades earlier. Prosecutors claim that once Mr. Barzman sold the artworks, he split the proceeds with his accomplice.
Former museum director and CEO Aaron De Groft defended the pieces’ authenticity after they were shown in the ‘Heroes & Monsters’ exhibition. However, his removal from office followed the June 24 raid. The F.B.I. arrived just a few days before the display was slated to end on June 30; following that, it was supposed to go to Italy.
When it was revealed in May of last year that the F.B.I.’s Art Crime Team was looking into the legitimacy of the paintings, the owners maintained their stance that the works were genuine Basquiats, having been created in 1982 and sold for $5,000 to a now-deceased television screenwriter named Thad Mumford.
According to the plea deal, Mr. Barzman, who had previously operated an auction company that acquired and resold the contents of delinquent storage units, said that he had located the paintings among the contents of Mr. Mumford’s storage unit. After being questioned by authorities, he admitted that he had “used the acquisition of Mumford’s stored items to create a false provenance for the fraudulent paintings,” as stated in the court records.
In an interview with Elizabeth Rivas, a former head of the F.B.I.’s Los Angeles art crime section, Mr. Mumford denied buying any Basquiats in 2014. In an affidavit she submitted last year to support her request for a search warrant at the museum, she made mention of her interview with him.
Owners who transported paintings to an Orlando institution for an exhibition have indicated in interviews that they acquired the items from Mr. Barzman or from others who had purchased them on eBay from him. One of the owners, Leo Mangan, said that he and several others had paid about $15,000 for a total of 25 paintings, and that they had subsequently sold a stake in six of those works to Los Angeles trial attorney Pierce O’Donnell, who had been instrumental in establishing and marketing them as real Basquiats.
According to the court records, Mr. Barzman told the agents that the purchasers had constantly approached him over the years, requesting him to sign documentation stating that the artwork had originated from the Mumford storage unit. After being given between $10,000 and $15,000 to sign a notarized certificate claiming that the works had originated from the unit, he did so, but said he was never paid.
Later, in either 2017 or 2018, he allegedly told one of the owners that he couldn’t confirm the paintings were from the Mumford storage unit, according to court records. The proprietor “reacted with anger,” he claimed.