A Long Island City foundry owner has changed his plea to guilty on charges that he plotted to sell a fake sculpture of contemporary artist Jasper Johns’ famous 1960 “Flag” painting for $11 million.
The plea change comes five days after Johns himself testified in court that Brian Ramnarine never returned the mold after producing the wax cast.
In a phone interview, Ramnarine’s attorney, Troy Smith, said that his client made the plea midway through the trial after evaluating the overwhelming evidence of guilt presented by the prosecution.
“Every defendant in our country has a right to try the case and go to trial and make the government prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt and that’s what he wanted to do,” said Smith.
Ramnarine originally said that the sculpture was a gift but Johns later testified that he never agreed to giving him the sculpture. Johns had previously used Ramnarine for other projects, but the artist said he did not know Ramnarine besides the few times he was commissioned for work.
In 1960, Johns created the bronze sculpture and then in 1990, he asked Ramnarine, who owns Empire Bronze Art Foundry, to create a wax cast of it.
In 2010, he began circulating the art world for potential buyers, at which time speculative collectors questioned the work’s authenticity, leading to an FBI investigation. FBI documents showed that Ramnarine said he had documents of authenticity and could arrange a meeting between Johns and the collector to dispel doubts.
Ramnarine was hit with the fraud charge in November 2012, and according to a press release by the U.S. attorney, continued to defraud an online art gallery that paid “tens of thousands of dollars for phony sculptures” thought to be genuine pieces by artists Robert Indiana and Saint Clair Cemin, while he was out on bail.
According to Smith, under the terms of the plea agreement, federal guidelines stipulate that Ramnarine could face between eight to 10 years in prison for the charges.
If he had been convicted on the original charges, he could have faced up to 30 years.
This is the second time Ramnarine has faced a court for fraud charges.
In 2003, a Queens Supreme Court justice sentenced him to five years probation and ordered to pay $100,000 for defrauding two art collectors.