In yet another wild twist in the story of the Florida museum whose exhibition of fake Basquiats was raided by the FBI last year, a Los Angeles-based auctioneer has confessed to not only concealing the artworks’ provenance but helping create the forgeries.
Today, April 11, 45-year-old Michael Barzman of North Hollywood was charged with making false statements to the FBI during a 2022 interview. Barzman agreed to plead guilty to the felony and admitted to producing the fake works included in an Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) show of works attributed to Jean-Michel Basquiat. According to a statement released by the US Attorney’s Office of the Central District of California, in 2012 Barzman and a co-conspirator identified in court documents as “J.F.” created between 20 and 30 artworks and agreed to split any profits they made from selling the copies.
“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,” the plea agreement reads.
The FBI raided the museum in June 2022 and seized 25 pieces, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to the ousting of OMA Director and Chief Executive Officer Aaron De Groft, who appeared to stand by the artworks’ provenance even as the investigation intensified. (De Groft is not facing charges at this time.) Two months later, in August, the museum’s interim director and board chair both resigned from their posts in the same week.
But prior to the FBI’s intervention, the story provided to those who asked about the OMA exhibition was a different one: The pieces on view in Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat were found in 2012 in a Los Angeles storage unit belonging to the late Hollywood screenwriter Thaddeus Mumford. After Mumford failed to pay his rental fees for the space, two storage unit “treasure hunters” purchased the trove of artworks for a total of $15,000 — a small price to pay considering the lot’s purported estimated value of $100 million and impeccable provenance: The paintings, it was said, were made in 1982 while Basquiat was staying at dealer Larry Gagosian’s LA home in advance of an exhibition at the gallery. Instead of making good on his commitment to the gallery, the anecdote went, Basquiat sold the works to Mumford for $5,000.
In his plea deal, Barzman confesses to having manufactured the artworks’ provenance, claiming in a notarized document provided to the paintings’ buyers that the works were discovered in Mumford’s unit. What was true, however, was that in 2012, Barzman was running a business based on acquiring and auctioning off the contents of unpaid rental storage units.
Even before OMA’s show opening in 2022, the artworks were called out as dummies by a sharp-eyed former designer for FedEx who spotted the company’s typeface on the cardboard one of the paintings was made on. Though Basquiat often worked on cardboard and other found scraps, that particular FedEx font wasn’t released until 1994, six years after he died.
The US Attorney’s Office said Barzman initially denied creating the paintings even as he admitted to lying about the artwork’s storage-locker backstory — and, remarkably, continued to lie after FBI agents showed him the verso of one of the seized paintings made on cardboard in which his name was visible on a mailing label that had been painted over.
“At the time of the interview, [Barzman] knew that he and J.F. had created the paintings and that his statements to the contrary were untruthful,” reads the plea agreement. “His statement that he did not make the paintings or have someone make them for him were material to the activities and decisions of the FBI and were capable of influencing the agency’s decisions and activities.”
In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment with regards to today’s plea deal, OMA shared a statement by board chairman Mark Elliott.
“The Orlando Museum of Art awaits the investigation’s conclusion and hopes it brings justice to all victims,” Elliott said.
“We have taken and will continue to take actions that realign the institution with its mission,” the statement continues. “These actions include supporting employees impacted by the exhibition and investigation, adopting new personnel policies with enhanced whistleblower protections, meeting with many community members and leaders, receiving governance training for the board, and working with the American Alliance of Museums to repair the institution’s standing.”
Once the investigation is closed and all charges are brought, OMA “looks forward to sharing [its] story regarding the works in question,” the museum’s statement concludes.
Barzman could face up to five years in federal prison for the charge of making false statements to a government agency. A representative for the US Attorney’s Office confirmed in an email to Hyperallergic that Barzman has not been charged with forgery. The investigation is ongoing.