A West Hollywood man pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Miami to criminal charges stemming from the sale of bogus artworks he claimed were created by famed modern artists, and he was immediately ordered to serve five years in prison.
Philip Righter, 43, pleaded guilty to three felony charges in a case filed in Los Angeles and admitted selling works he falsely claimed were created by artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Righter also admitted using fake artwork as collateral for loans on which he later defaulted, and using bogus pieces for fraudulent write-offs on his income tax returns.
Righter pleaded guilty to wire fraud, aggravated identity theft and tax fraud, and was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke of the Southern District of Florida.
In total, his scheme attempted to bilk victims out of well over $6 million, and he caused losses of at least $758,265. In addition, his fraudulent tax returns cost the United States more than $100,000, according to a plea agreement in the case.
Cooke also sentenced Righter to 60 months in federal prison in relation to a case filed by federal prosecutors in Miami, but the sentences in both cases will run concurrent with each other. Righter pleaded guilty in the Miami case in March, admitting that he tried to sell Haring and Basquiat forgeries to the owner of a Miami art gallery.
In the Los Angeles case, Righter admitted he executed a scheme to defraud people, businesses and the United States from 2016 until June 2018 by using counterfeit and fraudulent art that he asserted was genuine. Righter supported these false claims with fraudulent provenance — or chronology-of- origin — documents that he had created.
Before August 2016, Righter generally conducted these fraudulent transactions in his own name. But after the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department interviewed him about bogus Haring art he attempted to sell to the Miami art gallery, he began using the names of other people to execute his scheme, court documents state.
To make the fake artwork appear genuine, Righter ordered and used embossing stamps that appeared similar to the stamps used by the estates of Basquiat and Haring to authenticate works by these artists.
To further the scheme, Righter obtained and attempted to obtain numerous loans by using the fraudulent art and accompanying fraudulent provenance documents. For example, in October 2016, using another person’s name, he contacted a victim about a loan in which a purported original drawing by Basquiat would be used as collateral. Righter created a fraudulent certificate of authentication letter that purportedly came from Basquiat’s estate. The victim wired a $24,000 loan, on which Righter later defaulted. After Righter’s default, the victim attempted to auction the piece, but the auction house determined the piece was fraudulent, and the victim lost $24,000.
Righter also sold or attempted to sell numerous pieces of fake modern art. In August 2017, using another person’s name, Righter listed a purported 1983 piece of art by Basquiat with the word “Samo” written on it with an art sale website and he provided fake provenance documents. The website sold the piece for $50,000. In 2018, after the piece was determined to be fraudulent, the website had to refund the purchase price to the buyer.
Righter also admitted that he knowingly and willfully included a false W-2 and documentation of a donation of fraudulent art to a charity on his 2015 federal income tax return, which resulted in him fraudulently receiving a refund of $54,858. Righter then signed and filed a false 2015 amended tax return, which claimed a false casualty and theft loss of $2,575,000 related to artwork he claimed had been stolen. In truth, the art was fraudulent and had no value. This bogus amended tax return resulted in false carryback loss refunds for 2012, 2013 and 2014 totaling $52,485, according to court documents.
A carryback is an accounting term that describes a situation in which a business experiences a net operating loss and chooses to apply that loss to a prior year’s tax return.