On Monday, January 27, 2014, former foundry owner Brian Ramnarine has admitted to lying about the authenticity of thirteen sculptures and attempting to sell forgeries by attributing them to well-known artists Jasper Johns, Saint Clair Cemin, and Robert Indiana.
Ramnarine was arrested in November 2012, after an art collector who had been offered a sculpture of Johns’ “Flag” for $11 million suspected it was a fake and informed the FBI. Empire Bronze, Ramnarine’s foundry in Long Island City, Queens, was so well-known among artists for its excellent work in the 1980s, that Jasper Johns entrusted Ramnarine in 1990 to make a wax cast of the mold for his famous 1960 metallic collage “Flag.” However, he never returned or destroyed the mold, and the U.S. Attorney later accused Ramnarine of casting an unauthorized sculpture in bronze and forging Mr. Johns’s signature, according to the indictment. An authentic “Flag” is among the most famous of the artist’s works, and he was known to have made a limited number of such sculptures. Of the six, Johns had held onto several, one is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago and another was given to President Kennedy by the art dealer Leo Castelli. Other forged works included Indiana’s “Two” and Cemin’s “Bulls Eye.”
In June 2013, Ramnarine had pleaded not guilty to the charges brought by the US Attorney. However, yesterday, he pled guilty to three counts of wire fraud in federal court, in Manhattan’s Southern District Court. Ramnarine admitted to misleading prospective buyers that the works he offered by Johns, Saint Clair Cemin, and Indiana were authentic when they were not.
The new pleading comes only days after Jasper Johns, 83, took the stand on Thursday, January 23, 2014, to testify against Ramnarine. John’s testimony (and the attention it received) was a significant blow to Ramnarine as the trial unfolded. Johns stated, “I know what I do to authorize [my sculptures] and this isn’t mine… it’s finished in a way I wouldn’t finish it, the frame has been polished… the signature appears to have been done photographically and there is a copyright symbol, which I would never use.”
Ranmarine’s attorney had stated that artists often gave works to Ramnarine as gifts or substitutes for cash payments for other castings. He claimed that Ramnarine’s inability to produce formal, written contracts for the pieces with his clients was because they agreed to these arrangements orally.
These statements were denied by Cemin and Johns in their testimonies. The trial’s first witness, Cemin told the Court that “when I traded with him, I always made a note of it… the worst provenance a piece can have is from a foundry, because is the only place that can create unauthorized pieces.”
Prosecutors accused Ramnarine of using a mold originally used to make a wax casting to make the forged “Flag” sculpture in 2010. Johns told the jury in the case that he had never asked Ramnarine to make a bronze cast of “Flag,” only a wax impression. He recalled, “I was investigating the possibility of casting in gold, and I needed the wax to see what the price would be.” Ramnarine was able to produce the original wax cast from 1990, as he had never returned the original mold from which the cast was made. Johns did concede that it would be possible to create a new cast from the old mold, but said that it would be “unusual and unethical.”
This is not the first time Mr. Ramnarine has had troubles with the law. In November 2003, he was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution to two art collectors, when he pleaded guilty to falsifying business records in connection with selling them sculptures that he cast. In that case, the pieces were also purported to be originals by well-known artists.
Now, as part of a plea deal, Ramnarine agreed not to challenge any sentence of 10 years or less in prison. He faces up to 20 years in prison. Sentencing has been set for May 30, 2014.