A former auctioneer from North Hollywood who admitted he helped create and verify 25 fake Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings that were seized from the Orlando Museum of Art last year pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges.
Michael Barzman, 45, entered his plea to making false statements to the FBI during an interview in August, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In his plea agreement, Barzman admitted that he and an associate — identified in court documents as J.F. — created the fake Basquiats in 2012 after hatching a plan to market the bogus artwork.
“J.F. spent a maximum of 30 minutes on each image and as little as five minutes on others, and then gave them to (Barzman) to sell on eBay,” according to the document.
Barzman and his associate “agreed to split the money that they made from selling the fraudulent paintings … 20-30 artworks (made) by using various art materials to create colorful images on cardboard,” the agreement states.
Barzman, who in 2012 ran an auction business focused on purchasing and reselling contents of unpaid storage units, further admitted that he attempted to create a false provenance — or history of the ownership of a piece of art — for the purported Basquiats by claiming in a notarized document that the fraudulent paintings were found inside a storage unit that a well-known screenwriter had rented, according to the agreement.
Barzman’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
The bogus art was sold and made its way through the art market, forming the basis of an exhibition titled “Heroes and Monsters” that opened in February 2022 at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida
“Most of the featured works had, in fact, been created by (Barzman) and J.F.,” Barzman admitted in his plea agreement.
The FBI executed a search warrant at the Orlando museum last June and seized 25 pieces that Basquiat purportedly created. During an August interview with special agents of the FBI who specialize in art fraud, Barzman denied making the paintings himself, prosecutors said.
In another FBI interview last October, Barzman admitted “it was a lie” that the artwork had come from the storage locker, but he continued to deny making the fraudulent paintings — even after agents showed him the back of a painting on cardboard seized from the Orlando Museum of Art in which his name appears on a mailing label that had been painted over, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The crime of making false statements to a government agency carries a possible penalty of up to five years in federal prison, prosecutors noted. Sentencing was scheduled for Aug. 18.
Basquiat rose to fame in the 1980s in New York’s East Village art scene, incorporating graffiti and cartoon imagery in his work. Since his death at the age of 27 in 1988, Basquiat’s work has greatly increased in value. His 1982 painting, “Untitled,” depicting a black skull, sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million at Sotheby’s auction house in 2017, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased.