Auctioneer, who admitted he helped make fake Basquiats seized by the FBI, avoids jail time

Michael Barzman, the Los Angeles auctioneer who admitted that he and an accomplice were responsible for between 20 and 30 fake works marketed as authentic Jean-Michel Basquiat pieces, will avoid prison time. A judge in US District Court in Los Angeles sentenced Barzman to 500 hours of community service and three years’ probation, and ordered him to pay a $500 fine, according to The New York Times.

Last April, Barzman admitted that he and an accomplice (identified only by the initials “JF”) had created the works—spending between five and 30 minutes on each—in order to then sell them on eBay. The works eventually went on display at the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) in the exhibition Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat, where their lack of provenance was explained by way of a story involving a storage locker rented out by the screenwriter Thad Mumford, who had purportedly bought the works directly from Basquiat while the artist was living and working at dealer Larry Gagosian’s home in Los Angeles.

In June 2022, after reports raising questions about the Basquiats’ authenticity, the FBI raided the exhibition and seized the works, setting off a forgery scandal that resulted in the firing of the OMA’s director, Aaron De Groft, and the museum being placed on probation by the American Alliance of Museums. Earlier this week, the OMA filed a lawsuit against De Groft, alleging that he had sought to profit from the forgeries’ display.

Barzman reversed himself after lying to the FBI when he was first questioned in connection with the Basquiat trove in the summer of 2022. In a subsequent interview the following autumn, he admitted that the works’ provenance “was a lie”. Finally, in a plea agreement in April, he admitted that “most of the featured works had, in fact, been created by [him] and JF.” He was facing up to five years in prison.

The judge in his case ultimately gave Barzman the sentence prosecutors had recommended. They acknowledged during the trial that the defendant “had a difficult life, physically and emotionally”, adding that his “struggles with substance abuse and financial difficulties likely contributed to some of the unfortunate decisions he made”, according to the Times.

The investigation into the fake Basquiats is still active, and the identity of Barzman’s alleged co-conspirator, JF, has not been made public.

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