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Former Jasper Johns assistant admits illegal sales of artist's work

Trials and ArbitrationArtArts and Culture
Prosecutors say Jasper Johns assistant duped gallery into selling artist's unfinished work
Former Jasper Johns assistant admits he took in $3.4 million by selling stolen work
Second fraud case related to Jasper Johns work ends in guilty plea

A longtime assistant to artist Jasper Johns,  whose “Flag” sold at auction in 2010 for $28.6 million, pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges that he duped a Manhattan gallery into selling stolen work by Johns so he could collect the profits.

Prosecutors said James Meyer, 52, who worked with Johns for more than 25 years,  collected $3.4 million between September 2006 and February 2012 from 22 works he stole from Johns’ studio and asked the gallery to sell. The gallery was not named in the indictment and was not accused of wrongdoing.

It was the second time this year that someone has been charged with defrauding Johns, 84, and others in connection with his work. In February, a former foundry owner from Queens pleaded guilty to trying to sell counterfeit versions of “Flag.”

“James Meyer made millions by stealing and selling the valuable artworks that he was entrusted with maintaining,” the Manhattan U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara, said in a statement after Meyer entered his guilty plea.

Meyer pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of stolen property, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. As part of his plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to seek a term of 37 to 46 months imprisonment when Meyer is sentenced in December.

The plea ended a case that showcased the extraordinary wealth gap in the art world, which Meyer gained entry to in 1985 when he became a studio assistant to Johns after attending art school in New York City.

According to an interview that he posted on his website, Meyer met Johns by chance when he went knocking on studio doors in search of work as an artist’s apprentice.

“I had no idea what his work was like,” Meyer told the interviewer, adding that if he had not gone to art school, he probably would not have known that Jasper Johns was an artist.  Nevertheless, two hours after meeting Johns, Meyer said, “He hired me, told me to come back the next day, and that was more than 10 years ago.”

The interview was conducted in 2005, as Meyer tried to make his mark in the art world with showings of his own artwork at galleries mainly in New York.

By then, Johns had established himself as one of America's most influential contemporary artists through works such as "Flag" and "Map." Both are displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

When Christie's in 2010 sold "Flag" at auction in 2010, its $28.6-million sale price was well above the expected high bid, and it was a record at that time for the artist at auction.  Art experts said Johns' works brought much higher prices in private sales.

Works by Meyer listed on his website for sale are priced at about $750 to $950.

Meyer, who lives in Connecticut, was arrested in August 2013. According to a federal indictment, Meyer's duties as Johns' assistant included maintaining a file of unfinished works that were not to be released onto the art market.

The indictment said Meyer took 22 pieces from that file and from elsewhere in Johns' studio and told a Manhattan gallery that the artist had given him the work to sell. Meyer received $3.4 million of the $6.5 million raised from sales of the works, prosecutors said.

Johns did not appear in court, but he testified earlier this year in the trial of the former foundry owner, Brian Ramnarine, who was charged with using a mold of "Flag" to sell fake copies of the work for $11 million.

Ramnarine, 59, pleaded guilty to three counts of wire fraud shortly after his trial got under way in federal court in Manhattan. He is due to be sentenced next month.

During that trial, Johns testified that Ramnarine refused to return the mold to him. Johns said he had commissioned Ramnarine to make the mold for creation of another version of "Flag" that he had planned.

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 tina.susman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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