A former auctioneer has pled guilty to helping create and sell dozens of fake Basquiat paintings that were seized by the FBI last year from the Orlando Museum of Art, the Department of Justice said Tuesday.
Michael Barzman, 45, from Hollywood, California, has been charged with making false statements to authorities about the provenance of the works, which ignited a headline-grabbing scandal when they were confiscated from the OMA in view of curious museumgoers. The works were on display in the show “Heroes & Monsters: Jean-Michel Basquiat” that opened in February 2022.
The court filings detail how Barzman and a second man—identified only as “J.F.”—painted the fake Basquiats in 2012.
“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,” reads the plea agreement. “[Barzman] and J.F. agreed to split the money that they made from selling the Fraudulent Paintings. J.F. and [Barzman] created approximately 20-30 artworks by using various art materials to create colorful images on cardboard.”
Barzman, who formerly ran an auction business that specialized in reselling objects from unpaid storage units, also admitted that he faked a notarized provenance—a history of ownership of an artwork—that claimed the forgeries had been discovered in a storage unit after its purported owner, an LA-based screenwriter, failed to pay rent. The fraudulent works were sold at auction and eventually travelled to the OMA, where they were the centerpiece of the Basquiat exhibition.
A series of swift shakeups at the museum followed the raid, starting with the former museum director Aaron De Groft, who was ousted by the board of trustees only four days after the raid. De Groft unveiled the paintings to the public in February and vehemently defended them amid mounting challenges to their credibility. De Groft and the paintings’ owners claimed the works were created around 1982 by Basquiat while he was living and working in Los Angeles and had been forgotten in the storage unit. The FBI affidavit provided evidence to the contrary, including an interview with the purported original owner of the paintings who swore he had never patronized the famed artist.
The board has since replaced its chair, Cynthia Brumback, who has faced considerable criticism from the community for her failure to avert the scandal. Several former trustees dismissed in April told Orlando press that Brumback withheld the fact that a FBI subpoena was sent to OMA on July 27, 2021—almost seven months before the exhibition opened—demanding “any and all” communications among the museum’s staff, board, and the owners of the paintings.
In August 2022, special agents of the FBI’s art crime unit questioned Barzman.
“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,” Barzman admitted in his plea agreement.
Giving false statements to a government agency carries a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison.
In a statement, the OMA said:
Today we learned of the plea agreement entered in connection with the ongoing investigation involving last year’s “Heroes and Monsters” exhibition as it was announced publicly. The Orlando Museum of Art awaits the investigation’s conclusion and hopes it brings justice to all victims.
In the wake of this ongoing investigation, the Orlando Museum of Art has recommitted itself to its mission to provide excellence in the visual arts with its exhibitions, collections, and educational programming.
We have taken and will continue to take actions that realign the institution with its mission. 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.
Where such actions can be disclosed publicly, they have been and will continue to be.
The Museum is eager for the DOJ to continue its investigation and hold those who committed crimes responsible. When this investigation is closed, and charges are brought, the Museum looks forward to sharing our story regarding the works in question.
The Orlando Museum of Art remains grateful to its employees, supporters, and community.