Artist Jasper Johns testifies at N.Y. trial about forged sculpture

NEW YORK Fri Jan 24, 2014 7:53am IST

Contemporary artist Jasper Johns exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York January 23, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Contemporary artist Jasper Johns exits the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York January 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jasper Johns knows his own work when he sees it.

So when the renowned U.S. artist on Thursday was shown a sculpture he supposedly created and was asked whether it was genuine, he said no without any hesitation.

"I can tell by looking at it," the 83-year-old artist told jurors in Manhattan federal court, where a foundry owner is on trial for allegedly trying to sell the fake sculpture for $11 million.

Brian Ramnarine, 59, is charged with three counts of wire fraud. Prosecutors say he used molds he acquired from artists while running a foundry in the city's Queens borough to create unauthorized sculptures.

In addition to the Johns sculpture, which came from a mold made from the artist's 1960 painting "Flag," Ramnarine also is charged with ripping off work from artists Saint Clair Cemin and Robert Indiana.

Prosecutors said he tried to sell those sculptures last year while out on bail after his arrest in connection with the Johns sculpture.

Clad in a dark gray sweater, black scarf, black pants and black sneakers, Johns spent slightly more than an hour on the witness stand.

He said he had been considering creating sculptures made of gold based on "Flag" when he commissioned Ramnarine in 1990 to make a wax cast from a mold he had made of the painting.

Johns had already used the mold to make other sculptures in bronze and silver, including one at the Art Institute in Chicago and one that was given as a gift to President John F. Kennedy by Johns' longtime art dealer.

Ramnarine produced the wax cast but never returned the mold, Johns said.

When Assistant U.S. Attorney Zachary Feingold asked if it was normal practice for foundry owners to keep artists' molds, Johns said it would be unethical and said artists typically keep molds in order to prevent unauthorized copies from being made.

Ramnarine's defense attorney, Troy Scott, said in his opening statement that Ramnarine believed the mold to be a gift.

Johns said on the witness stand that he and Ramnarine had not signed any contract and worked under a verbal agreement but said he had never agreed to give the mold to Ramnarine.

Prosecutors introduced into evidence a letter that appeared to be to Ramnarine from Johns offering it as a present; Johns said it was a forgery, noting the signature and letterhead were wrong.

FORMER ASSISTANT ALSO FACES CHARGES

Ramnarine is not the only defendant accused of stealing Johns' art. The artist's longtime assistant, James Meyer, was charged in August in Connecticut federal court with stealing nearly two dozen works from Johns and selling them through an art gallery. He has pleaded not guilty.

Ramnarine's defense lawyer told U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that Ramnarine would testify that Meyer told him he could keep the mold in the 1990s.

In his final question to Johns, Scott asked whether he knew what Meyer had told Ramnarine regarding the mold.

"Certainly not," Johns said.

The trial was set to continue on Friday. Ramnarine faces the possibility of 20 years in prison if convicted.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Osterman)

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