California man pleads guilty in $6 million art fraud case

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California man pleads guilty in $6 million art fraud case
File photo of Keith Haring painting a mural at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 1986.

by Daniel Victor and Christine Hauser

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A California man pleaded guilty in federal court in Florida to charges that he tried to sell more than $6 million in counterfeit art, which he falsely claimed was created by the likes of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, prosecutors said this week.

The man, Philip Righter, 43, forged documentation to support his claims of authenticity for fake paintings and used the artwork as collateral for loans on which he later defaulted, the U.S. attorney’s office in the Central District of California and prosecutors in Florida said.

He also reported $2.6 million worth of art had been stolen and falsely claimed to have donated art to a charity, leading to more than $100,000 in tax refunds, the California office said.

Righter was indicted last year in Florida on counts of wire fraud, mail fraud and aggravated identity theft in efforts to sell forged works by Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as on other charges. He pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of mail fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft in District Court for the Southern District in Florida, a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office there said.

He faces additional federal charges in the Central District of California, where he was accused of selling forgeries he attributed to Basquiat, Haring, Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and has agreed to plead guilty, according to a statement Tuesday from the U.S. attorney’s office in California.

In the California case, Righter “admitted using fake paintings as collateral for loans on which he later defaulted and using fraudulent pieces for fraudulent write-offs on his income tax returns,” the statement said. He “agreed to plead guilty to the three felony offenses,” it added.

Righter, of West Hollywood, is being held in federal custody in Miami before sentencing, which is scheduled for May 18, court documents show. His lawyer, Ian McDonald, declined to comment when reached by telephone Friday.

Mark Williams, a prosecutor in the California case, said Friday that Righter would be sentenced in Florida and that he expected the documents in the California case to be transferred.

“All the tax fraud charges were out of my office here,” he said. “Our case is going to be transferred and assuming all the transfer documents are approved, he is expected to plead guilty.”

Righter tried to sell the art between 2016 and 2018, prosecutors in California said. At first he sold the pieces using his real name but began using other names after the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department interviewed him in August 2016 about trying to sell art to a Miami art gallery, according to court documents.

In October 2016, Righter obtained a $24,000 loan using a false Basquiat drawing as collateral and then defaulted on the loan, prosecutors said. When the lender tried to auction the drawing, it was revealed as a fake.

The various schemes caused people to lose at least $758,265, prosecutors said.

Righter was arrested in August on fraud and identity theft charges in South Florida, where authorities said he tried to sell counterfeit art, obtained through online marketplaces like eBay, for more than $1 million to a gallery owner there.

According to the Florida indictment, Righter acquired forged and fraudulent artworks, claiming some of them bore the signatures of prominent artists. He also created fraudulent letters certifying their authenticity and embossed them, it said.

“With the forgeries and letters in hand, Righter offered to sell the fraudulent art pieces to a South Florida gallery, auction houses and others,” a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of Florida said.

Righter, who was in California, told prospective buyers that he had inherited some of the works from his grandmother, the indictment and the attorney’s office statement said.

Experts say the problem of fraudulent art has grown with the proliferation of online art sales and more sophisticated methods of forging works like prints. Fake prints are often falsely attributed to Lichtenstein and Warhol, and fake works have frequently referenced the creations of artists like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Henri Matisse.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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