NEW YORK (AP) — Artist Jasper Johns will testify against a foundry owner charged with trying to sell a fake bronze sculpture of his iconic 1960 painting "Flag" for $11 million, a prosecutor told jurors at the opening of a federal criminal trial Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Feingold said Johns will say he never gave Brian Ramnarine the sculpture as a gift despite the defendant's claims.
"You will hear from Jasper Johns that the stories the defendant told were outright lies," Feingold said. "He'll tell you he never knew these knockoffs existed."
An indictment charged Ramnarine, 59, with three counts of wire fraud, saying he used molds he acquired while working for artists at his busy Long Island City foundry in the late 1980s and early 1990s to stamp out more than a dozen unauthorized copies of sculptures that he tried to sell for tens of thousands or millions of dollars.
Feingold said Johns hired Ramnarine to make a wax impression of his famous painting in 1990, but the mold was never returned. The prosecutor said Ramnarine tried to sell the knockoff in 2010 as he struggled financially, but the buyer suspected a fraud and went to the FBI, which taped a meeting he had with Ramnarine that will be shown to jurors.
"Flag" the original 1960 encaustic and paper collage rendition of the stars and stripes, was sold at auction in 2010 in New York City for $28.6 million. The prosecutor said the real version of the sculpture Johns created in 1990 is displayed at Princeton University.
Defense lawyer Troy Smith told jurors Ramnarine came to the United States in the mid-1970s "functionally illiterate," unable to read or write, but became so successful at the craft of making sculptures that "artists were coming to the foundry in droves."
Smith said Johns will testify he had no contract with Ramnarine, just an understanding.
"He was an artist first and a businessman later," he said of his client.
The lawyer said oral agreements between artists and Ramnarine were common, and artists sometimes paid him with copies of their artworks for the expensive liquid metals he poured into their molds.
"There were times, often times, no money was exchanged," Smith said.
Smith noted that a former assistant to Johns has been charged with selling 22 works he allegedly stole from the pop artist's Connecticut studio. The government says Ramnarine pleaded guilty in state court in Queens in 2002 to falsifying business records in connection with schemes that prosecutors say were nearly identical to those now facing him.
Initially, Ramnarine was charged in Manhattan only with trying to sell the fake Johns piece. But Feingold said Ramnarine continued his scheme after his arrest, trying to sell sculptures purportedly created and authorized by artists Robert Indiana and Saint Clair Cemin. In court papers, prosecutors said Ramnarine defrauded a Queens art gallery owner of more than $34,000 for 12 fake sculptures.
Cemin, the trial's first witness, conceded he once gave Ramnarine two candle-shaped sculptures as a gift.
He said he spotted two of Ramnarine's fake versions of his sculptures when he visited a doctor's home in 2001.
Cemin said he went to Ramnarine's foundry "very upset" and saw a fraudulent version of one of his sculptures.
"I smashed it to the floor, breaking it, and I left," Cemin testified.
Asked if he ever saw Ramnarine again, he said: "Never."