By Olivia Baker.

Forgeries have undeniable adverse effects on the art world. Some forgers have avoided being discovered and others have luckily been caught, Phillip Righter being a recent one. Righter was recently convicted in two criminal cases involving a series of art forgeries, the first one filed on June 20, 2019 in the United States District Court Southern District of Florida and the second filed on March 23, 2020 in the United States Central District of California.[1] Righter began selling fakes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and other well-known artists’ works sometime before 2016. He forged certificates of authenticity for artworks by artists whose estates stopped authenticating artworks in an attempt to make his fakes appear to be authentic. The Los Angeles police were investigating him as early as 2016, when they questioned him about a forged Keith Haring offered to a Miami gallery.[2] Although he traveled often to California, Righter resided primarily Florida where he was arrested on July 19, 2019 on fraud and identity theft charges where he was trying to sell counterfeit art, for more than $1 million to a gallery owner.[3] The California case was eventually transferred to the Southern District of Florida where his case with respect to his arrest had already begun.

Righter’s Modus Operandi

According to the U.S. Attorney, Erik M. Silber’s complaint filed in California, Phillip Righter started selling fake artworks to galleries and art collectors by telling prospective buyers he inherited some of the works from his grandmother and created elaborate backstories to make the forged artworks seem authentic.[4] He forged documents to show links between the artworks and his family, a Wisconsin art museum, and a prominent New York City gallery. Also according to the allegations against him, Righter told one prospective buyer that he had donated a number of his artworks to his Ivy League alma mater,[5] all of which was an effective lie. On August 1, 2016 Righter sent an email to the owner of a prominent art gallery in Aventura, FL, that falsely stated that he owned a collection of Keith Haring works in New York, beginning his string of many lies whereby he falsely claimed ownership of artworks by Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.[6] In his communications with different prospective buyers, lenders, and third-party brokers, he would give specific payment instructions to direct funds to him, following which he would sent a shipment of forged and fraudulent artworks, accompanied with fake certificates of authenticity.[7]

Unauthenticated Certificates of Authenticity

Righter quickly understood the value of certificates of authenticity in determining a work’s marketability and value, which can be demonstrated through the artwork’s certification from a qualified authority, such as the artist’s estate or foundation.[8] These letters, if credible, are even more valuable when an estate ceases to authenticate artworks. Both estates of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring disbanded their authentication committees in 2012 due to complicated lawsuits,[9] which Righter used to his advantage.

The record shows that in 2016, after a brief encounter with the FBI, Righter stopped acting in his own name and started to forge letters of authenticity to make the art more believable to buyers. This led to two counts of identity theft in Florida:

  • The first count for the name and signature of Julia Gruen, the former Executive Director of the Keith Haring Foundation, on a fraudulent authentication letter dated August 2016.[10]
  • The second count applies to the similar usage of the name and signature of Gerard Basquiat, the artist’s father and the first Administrator of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat.[11]

Fake artworks and authentication letters purporting to be issued by the Jean-Michel Basquiat Foundation. Exhibits submitted in the indictment in U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:20-cr-20164 (C.D. Cal. July 15, 2020).

To endow the fraudulent with convincing pedigree, Righter also ordered stamps that appeared as if they were authentic stamps of “The Authentication Committee of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat” and “The Estate of Keith Haring, Seal of Authenticity.” Along with the stamps, Righter also created fraudulent gallery labels for the fake Basquiat artwork stating the piece was purchased from the Annina Nosei Gallery, a New York gallery specializing in Basquiat art. These fraudulent labels, stamps, and documents caused victims to believe that the artworks were legitimate.

Righter’s scheme also enabled him to use fake artworks as collateral to obtain loans.[12] Along with the Basquiat and Haring works, he was also able to successfully submit a fake Roy Litchenstein piece as a collateral for a $100,000 loan.[13] In total, Righter’s “fraudulent scheme caused an actual loss of at least $758,265 and had intended loss of at least $5,656,500.”[14]

Lastly, around February 26, 2016, Righter “willfully made and subscribed to a materially false Amended United States Income Tax Return, Form 1040X, for the tax year 2015, which was verified by written declaration that it was made under the penalty of perjury, which was filed with the Internal Revenue Service.”[15] Righter knew this was a lie. He claimed a false casualty and theft loss of $2,575,00 related to artwork that he had claimed to be stolen, which in reality was fraudulent and had no value. He was not entitled to claim that loss, yet he received over $100,000 in returns.

Righter’s Fall

The Los Angeles police had been investigating Righter as early as 2016 for these fraudulent activities. An FBI agent and a detective from the Los Angeles Police Department interviewed Righter about the fraudulent Keith Haring art that he attempted to sell to a Miami gallery and warned him about selling fraudulent art. Nonetheless, his fraudulent art activities continued. Eventually his schemes caught up to him, and on July 19, 2019, he was arrested in South Florida on fraud and identity theft charges. The first case was filed on June 20, 2019 in the United States District Court Southern District of Florida. As his schemes in both Florida and California came to light after his arrest, a second case was filed on March 23, 2020 in the United States Central District of California. Since he was arrested in Florida and the cases involved the same illegal actions, the California case was transferred over to the District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

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.” He agreed to plead guilty to the [all] three felony offenses in the case originally begun in California.[16] In Florida, on March 12, 2020, Philip Righter pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of aggravated identity theft. He was also found guilty of wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, tax fraud, and mail fraud. Whereas he could have faced up to 25 years in prison, U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke chose to sentence him to 60 months’ imprisonment in both cases, which he will be able to serve simultaneously since the illegal actions and the incidents were very close together in time.

Takeaways

Experts say the problem of fraudulent art has grown because of the increase of online art sales. There have also been new inventions of more sophisticated methods to forging artworks that have led to an increase in forgeries.[17] Erik Silber, a prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, said the scope of the plea agreement in Righter’s case will send an abundantly clear message to people looking to engage in this kind of fraudulent activity. He also stated in a phone interview with Courthouse News that “hopefully this will send a message from the FBI’s Art Crime Team and the United States Attorney’s Office that these types of cases will be fully prosecuted.”[18]

This case also shows the importance of having certificates of authenticity for artworks by artists whose estates no longer authenticate artworks. Art buyers and sellers should be aware of what estates do not authenticate works anymore and when exactly they disbanded. This will make it easier to tell when something like an authentication letter has been forged which will hint that the artwork is also forged. The works in both these cases have been seized by the FBI[19] and are no longer in circulation, but there may be more of Righter’s fakes in the market––art buyer beware!


Endnotes:

  1. U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:19-cr-20370 (S.D. Fla. July 15, 2020) and U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:20-cr-20164 (C.D. Cal. July 15, 2020).
  2. Sarah Cascone, A Los Angeles Man Who Forged Documents to ‘Authenticate’ Fake Works by Warhol and Basquiat Has Pleaded Guilty to Federal Fraud Charges, Artnet News (Mar. 11, 2020).
  3. Release, U.S. Att’y Office for S.D. Fla., A California Resident Charged in Scheme to Sell Forged Artworks in South Florida (Aug. 7, 2019). See also, Daniel Victor and Christine Hauser, California Man Pleads Guilty in $6 Million Art Fraud Case, New York Times (Mar. 13, 2020).
  4. Id.
  5. U.S. Attn’y Office for S.D. Fla., supra.
  6. FL: Indictment, 6, U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:19-cr-20370 (S.D. Fla. July 15, 2020).
  7. FL: Indictment, 5, U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:19-cr-20370 (S.D. Fla. July 15, 2020).
  8. FL: Indictment, 2, U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:19-cr-20370 (S.D. Fla. July 15, 2020).
  9. Irina Tarsis, Authentication Committees Disband: Warhol 2011, Basquiat 2012, Who’s Next?, Center for Art Law (Jan. 25, 2012); The Keith Haring Foundation Announces Its Decision To Disband Authentication Committee, Center for Art Law (Sept. 20, 2012).
  10. FL: Indictment, 8, U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:19-cr-20370 (S.D. Fla. July 15, 2020).
  11. Id.
  12. Id.
  13. CA: Plea Agreement,13, U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:20-cr-20164 (C.D. Cal. July 15, 2020).
  14. CA: Plea Agreement,16, U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:20-cr-20164 (C.D. Cal. July 15, 2020).
  15. CA: Indictment, 5, U.S. v. Righter, No. 1:20-cr-20164 (C.D. Cal. July 15, 2020).
  16. Daniel Victor and Christine Hauser, supra.
  17. Id.
  18. Carson McCullough, California Man Pleads Guilty to Modern Art Fraud Scheme, Courthouse News (Mar. 10, 2020).
  19. Margaret Carrigan, California man sentenced to five years in prison for $6m international art fraud scheme, The Art Newspaper (July 16, 2020).

About the Author: Olivia Baker was a Summer 2020 Intern at the Center for Art Law and a senior at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is studying Studio art history with minors in Art History and Business. Olivia can be reached at oliviab3@vt.edu.

Disclaimer: This article is intended for general information only and is not meant to provide legal advice. Readers should not construe or rely on any comment or statement in this article as legal advice. Opinions expressed are those of the author.