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Jasper Johns testifies in federal fraud case against foundry owner

In a rare public appearance, 83-year-old artist told a New York court he did not authorise the production of a bronze Flag sculpture

Jasper Johns leaving the federal courthouse in New York on Thursday, 23 January. Photo: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The artist Jasper Johns made a rare public appearance on Thursday to testify in a Manhattan federal court. The 83-year-old artist gave his testimony in the US Attorney’s case against a foundry owner, who allegedly made unauthorised copies of famous sculptures and tried to sell them as authentic works for millions of dollars.

“I know what I do to authorise [my sculptures] and this isn’t mine,” Johns told the court after examining a bronze Flag sculpture that resembled a series of four he made over more than 30 years. “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.”

The US Attorney has accused Brian Ramnarine, the former owner of the Empire Bronze Art Foundry in Queens, of selling or attempting to sell 13 unauthorised sculptures by Johns, Saint Clair Cemin and Robert Indiana. Ramnarine was arrested in 2012 after an art collector who had been offered the Johns Flag sculpture for $11m suspected it was a fake and alerted the FBI. (In 2003, Ramnarine pled guilty in state court to falsifying business records in an attempt to sell unauthorised copies of works by Kenny Scharf.) In court, both Johns and Cemin said they had never approved the additional copies Ramnarine produced.

Ramnarine’s attorney said that artists often gave works to Ramnarine as gifts or as a substitute for cash payment for other castings. Because Ramnarine did not have formal, written contracts with his clients, including Johns and Cemin, the accusations against him could not be proven, the lawyer said.

Both Cemin and Johns objected to that defence on Thursday. “When I traded with him I always made a note of it,” Cemin said. “The worst provenance a piece can have is from a foundry, because it is the only place that can create unauthorised pieces.”

Johns, who took the stand wearing black Nike sneakers and patiently explained his process to the jury for over an hour, said he had never asked Ramnarine to make a bronze cast of Flag, only a wax impression. “I was investigating the possibility of casting in gold, and I needed the wax to see what the price would be,” the artist said. Ramnarine produced the wax cast as requested in 1990, but never returned the original mould from which the cast was made. Prosecutors said he used this mould to create the bronze Flag sculpture in 2010.

Asked whether Ramnarine could have created the new cast from the old mould, Johns said it would be possible but also “unusual and unethical”. Cemin said Ramnarine’s actions “diminished the value of all the art I’m making”.

Update, 28 January: Ramnarine pleaded guilty on Monday to three counts of wire fraud, ending his trial after one week. Before the judge, the former foundry owner admitted to fabricating additional unauthorised sculptures even after his arrest in 2012. As part of his plea deal, Ramnarine agreed not to challenge a sentence of ten years or less in prison. (Had he not pleaded guilty, Ramnarine could have faced up to 80 years.) Sentencing is scheduled for 30 May.

The unauthorised bronze casting of Jasper Johns's Flag sculpture. Photo: Manhattan US Attorney's Office
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