On July 19, 2019, Los Angeles resident Philip Righter, 42 years old, was arrested on fraud and identity theft charges in connection with a scheme to sell forged artworks by prominent contemporary artists. He was indicted on charges of wire fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343; mail fraud, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1341; and aggravated identity theft, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1028A(a)(1). The indictment was unsealed on August 6, 2019.
Ariana Fajardo Orshan, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, and George L. Piro, Special Agent in Charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), made the announcement.
According to the indictment, Righter engaged in a scheme to defraud a South Florida art gallery owner and others by making materially false and fraudulent representations, and by the concealment of material facts, concerning, among other things, the source and authenticity of certain artworks purportedly created by deceased artists K.H. and J.M.B.
Righter is alleged to have acquired forged and fraudulent artworks through, among other sources, the eBay online marketplace. In order to make the forged and fraudulent artworks appear authentic, Righter created fraudulent letters certifying their authenticity. These fraudulent letters bore the names of legitimate representatives of the artists’ estates.
In furtherance of the scheme, Righter also designed and purchased custom-made embossers bearing the names of K.H. and J.M.B., which Righter used to stamp the authentication letters to make them appear legitimate.
Righter, personally and through third-party brokers, offered to sell the forged and fraudulent artworks to several potential buyers, including auction houses, the owner of a South Florida art gallery, and others. According to the indictment, Righter directed the art gallery owner to make a payment of $1,056,000 in exchange for the forged artworks.
Righter was granted a $100,000 bond, following his initial appearance in California. He was arraigned on the indictment on August 6, 2019, before United States Magistrate Judge Alicia M. Otazo-Reyes in Miami, Florida. If convicted, Righter can be sentenced to up to 20 years’ imprisonment on the wire fraud and mail fraud charges, and a consecutive, two-year term of imprisonment on each of the aggravated identity theft charges. Additionally, the court may impose a fine of up to $250,000 on each count alleged in the indictment.
U.S. Attorney Fajardo Orshan commended the investigative efforts of the FBI Miami Field Division, which was assisted by the FBI Los Angeles Field Division and the Los Angeles Police Department. U.S. Attorney Fajardo Orshan also thanked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California for their assistance in this matter. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Christopher Browne.
An indictment contains mere allegations. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.