California man sentenced to five years in prison for $6m international art fraud scheme

Philip Righter tried to sell this fake artwork by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the US attorney says. AP

A West Hollywood man accused of attempting to sell $6m worth of fraudulent paintings to a South Florida gallery was sentenced to five years in prison by a Miami federal court on Wednesday.

Philip Righter, 43, pleaded guilty to three felony charges—wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and tax fraud—in a case filed in Los Angeles. He admitted to selling works he falsely claimed were created by artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kurt Schwitters and Roy Lichtenstein. According to a statement from the US Attorneys office, Righter also admitted to using the fake art as collateral for loans on which he later defaulted, and using “bogus” pieces for fraudulent write-offs on his income tax returns.

In total, Righters scheme attempted to swindle buyers out of around $6m, and he caused losses of at least $758,265 known to date. Additionally, his fraudulent tax returns resulted in $100,000 of unpaid taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), according to a plea agreement in the case.

In addition to the five-year felony sentence, US District Judge Marcia G. Cooke of the Southern District of Florida also handed down another sentence of 60 months in federal prison in another case involving Righter filed by prosecutors in Miami. Righter pleaded guilty in that case in March and admitted trying to sell Haring and Basquiat forgeries to the owner of a Miami art gallery, which remains unnamed in the court documents. Both sentences will run concurrent to each other.

Righter ran a fraud scheme up in California up until 2018, in which he attempted to sell counterfeit or fake art as genuine works by famous artists. To make the pieces appear authentic, he used custom-made embossing stamps that were similar to those used by the estates of Basquiat and Haring on provenance documents he created, according to court papers. He also created fake gallery labels falsely identifying works as having been purchased from the New York-based Annina Nosei Gallery, a real dealership known for selling works by Basquiat and other artists.

In a bid for leniency from the judge, Righters defense attorney suggested that there was nothing “especially complex” about his fraud scheme, as the US Attorney claimed. "Mr Righter simply logged onto the Internet and purchased artwork from, among other sources, eBay,” the documents say. “All that was required was a computer with an Internet connection and some knowledge of these well-known artists styles, works, and biographies, as well how letters of authenticity and provenance documents look and function (which could also be achieved through a series of Internet searches). The Haring and Basquiat estate embossing seals, though designed by Mr Righter, were also simply ordered from a commercial rubber stamp company."

Yet Righters schemes grew increasingly more complicated and malicious. At first, he sold the works under his own name, but when he was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Art Crime unit and the Los Angeles Police Department about a fake Haring work he tried to sell to the unnamed Miami gallery in 2016, he began using the names of other people and organisations, the court documents say.

Also, Righter received or tried to obtain numerous loans by using the fake art and provenance documents. For instance, in February 2016, he submitted an application to an online lender, identified as “P.G.” in the court documents, a made up provenance document identifying a work as Roy Lichtensteins Seductive Girl (Study), saying it had been purchased for $103,200, and another work he said was by Keith Haring, which turned out to be a fake. The lender agreed to provide a loan of $5,000 against the Haring. When Righter defaulted on the loan, the lender sold the work through Leslie Hindman Auctioneers for $50,000; the auction house lost $35,351 on the transaction when the fraud was later discovered. Similarly, in August of that same year, Righter obtained a $270,000 loan against the fake Lichtenstein from another lender identified as “E.C.”. Once again, Righter defaulted and the lender took the work to an unnamed auction house, which deemed it a fake.

The court documents also outline several attempts by Righter to sell fake works of art. In May 2017, under the names of a father and son duo, he offered a UK buyer two works purportedly by Basquiat totalling over $1m. The collector wired Righter a deposit of £120,000 ($151,484) before discovering the works were fakes.

And in August of the same year, once again using another persons name, Righter listed a piece purported made by Basquiat in 1983 with the word “Samo”—the artists well known street tag—written on it with an art sale website identified as “A.B”, providing fake provenance documents he said were from Annina Nosei gallery. The website sold the piece foRead More – Source