An auctioneer who pleaded guilty to helping produce a group of faked Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings has avoided jail time, instead receiving a sentence of probation and community service from a Los Angeles court on Friday.
The case was related to the saga surrounding a 2022 exhibition about Basquiat held at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida. That show touched off an FBI raid, the firing of the museum’s director, and legal action that is still ongoing.
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Included in the show were a group of works that the museum’s director at the time, Aaron De Groft, claimed had been produced in 1982 while the artist lived in Los Angeles. He said that after that, they were left in a storage unit, then forgotten. De Groft claimed they were major rediscoveries.
But doubt started to emerge after the New York Times ran an investigation that questioned these works’ authenticity. One expert on branding seized on the FedEx typeface that appeared in one of these paintings. He said the shipping company hadn’t started to use that typeface until 1994, more than a decade after these works were allegedly produced.
After the FBI investigated the 25 paintings, seizing them in a dramatic raid that made headlines around the world, Michael Barzman, the auctioneer who today was sentenced to probation, was interviewed by federal agents. Speaking to them in 2022, he claimed he had no role in the production of the works.
Then, in 2023, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about this, further saying that he had built out a false provenance for the paintings. That provenance was intended to act as documentation for the storage unit narrative. De Groft, along with two co-owners of the paintings, has stated that Barzman is not telling the truth.
LA prosecutors had been seeking the sentence Barzman ultimately received. According to the New York Times, which first reported the news, Barzman “had a difficult life, physically and emotionally,” and suffered from “substance abuse and financial difficulties.”
His sentence involves three years of probation, 500 hours of community service, and a fine of $500. Barzman’s lawyer told the Times that the auctioneer is “never going to reoffend.”
Meanwhile, the investigation into the faked Basquiats continues—as does the legal intrigue. Earlier this week, the Orlando Museum of Art sued De Groft, whom it fired not long after the FBI raid in the summer of 2022. The museum alleges that De Groft had made efforts to profit from putting the Basquiats in the exhibition and that he was attempting to do something similar with paintings by Titian and Jackson Pollock that were not in the show. He has denied wrongdoing.