A former Los Angeles auctioneer has agreed to plead guilty to cross-country Industrial Fraud Scheme In which he created fake artwork and falsely attributed the paintings to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
The paintings eventually wound up at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida before they were seized by federal agents last year in a scandal that rocked the museum and led to the departure of its CEO after he threatened an art expert and told him to “shut up.” .
Basquiat, a neo-expressionist painter whose breakthrough came in the 1980s, lived and worked in New York in 1988 before dying of a drug overdose at the age of 27. The Orlando Museum of Art scandal came in 2022 when a federal raid ended with the seizure of 25 paintings whose authenticity had been in question for a decade. The museum was the first to display the artwork, and its former director had previously insisted that the artwork was legitimate.
Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Defendant Michael Berzman, 45, was charged Tuesday in federal court in Los Angeles with making false statements to the FBI during an interview last year, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a news release. He agreed to plead guilty and could face up to five years in prison.
Barzman’s court date has not been set. Berzman admitted that he and another man, identified only as “JF” in court papers, created the fake paintings and agreed to split the sale proceeds.
“Mr. Berzman was deeply in medical debt after battling cancer for decades,” his attorney, Joel Koury, said in a statement Tuesday. “Desperate, she participated in the scheme because she was afraid of losing her health insurance. Since then, she has cooperated and done everything she was asked to do to compensate for her poor judgment.”
Mark Elliott, chairman of the Orlando Museum’s board of trustees, said in a statement that the museum has “recommitted itself to excellence in the visual arts, including its exhibitions, collections and educational programming” in the wake of the scandal.
Berzman admitted to the FBI — after repeated denials in interviews with federal agents, leading to Tuesday’s criminal charges — that he falsified the images, claiming in a notarized document that they were found in television writer Thad Mumford’s storage locker.
Berzman previously ran an auction business where he bought and resold the contents of unpaid storage units. He bought Mumford’s Locker in 2012.
Mumford, who died in 2018, told investigators he never owned any Basquiat art and that the paintings were not in the unit the last time he opened it.
Experts noted that the cardboard used in at least one piece included a FedEx typeface that was not used until 1994, according to a federal search warrant, nearly six years after Basquiat died. The artwork was marketed as a painting in 1982.
Berzman and “JF” would create the paintings on cardboard with various materials and then “age” them outside so that the artwork was painted in the 1980s, according to Berzman’s plea agreement.
But an important clue remains behind one of the paintings seized from the Orlando museum: a mailing label bearing Berzman’s name, painted on.