The fake Basquiat pieces were auctioned off and eventually found their way to the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida, where they were later seized by FBI agents last year.
On Tuesday, 45-year-old Michael Barzman was charged in a Los Angeles federal court with providing false statements to federal agents last year. After agreeing to plead guilty, he is facing up to five years behind bars.
Barzman admitted that he and another man—only identified as "J.F."—manufactured the fake paintings and decided to split the money they would get from an auction. "Mr. Barzman was drowning in medical debt after battling cancer for decades," said his attorney Joel Koury. "In desperation, he participated in this scheme because he was afraid of losing his health insurance. Since then, he has cooperated and done everything asked of him to compensate for his poor judgement."
In interviews with federal agents last year, Barzman repeatedly denied involvement in the fraudulent scheme. He claimed they were found in the storage locker belonging to TV writer Thad Mumford, who passed away in 2018. Barzman purchased Mumford’s locker in 2012 and ran an auction business where he sold the contents of unpaid storage units. Mumford previously told federal investigators he never owned Basquiat art. The legitimacy of the artworks had been in question for over a decade prior to their seizure.
According to Barzman’s plea agreement, he and “J.F.” painted the pieces on cardboard and then attempted to make them look aged by leaving them outdoors. One of the pieces he marketed as being painted in 1982, but experts pointed out that some of the cardboard used in the pieces included FedEx cardboard with a typeface that wasn’t in use until at least 1994.
Basquiat died of a drug overdose in New York City in 1988 at age 27. One of the fake pieces also featured a mailing label addressed to Barzman, which had been painted over.
In a statement, the chairman of the Orlando Museum’s board of trustees, Mark Elliott, said 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" following the seizure of the fake artworks. A federal raid resulted in the seizure of 25 paintings of unverified origin from the museum last year.