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In a message posted on Twitter two years ago, the artist Raymond Pettibon expressed his gratitude to two friends who had paid him a visit.
“Thank you Christian Rosa and Henry Taylor for coming by,” he wrote. “Great artists and kind, genuine people. You made my day.”
But at the time, according to federal prosecutors, Mr. Rosa was actually involved in something that was the opposite of genuine: He was scheming to sell forgeries of Mr. Pettibon’s work.
In an indictment announced on Wednesday, Mr. Rosa was charged with wire fraud in the sale of four paintings that were purportedly Mr. Pettibon’s work and that were backed by certificates of authenticity on which Mr. Rosa is accused of forging Mr. Pettibon’s signature.
Mr. Rosa “swindled buyers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and risked a New York artist’s legacy, through his forgery scheme,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement.
Mr. Rosa, 43, had been living in California but fled the United States in February and remains at large, prosecutors said. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charge against him. It was unclear if he had a lawyer.
Mr. Pettibon could not be reached for comment. Representatives of David Zwirner, the gallery that represents him, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday night, nor did the head of operations at his studio.
The indictment offers the following account of the events that led to the charges:
Starting in 2017 and continuing though last year, Mr. Rosa worked with others to sell the four pieces, which he falsely represented as from Mr. Pettibon’s “Wave Series.”
In 2018, Mr. Rosa enlisted the help of an unidentified buyer to arrange the sale of two of the forgeries to a second unidentified buyer. (As thanks for the first buyer’s help, Mr. Rosa gave the person another supposed “Wave Series” painting.)
Sometime in 2019, Mr. Rosa exchanged emails with a friend about trying to find buyers “for certain unnamed paintings.” In one of the emails, Mr. Rosa wrote that “they’re asking about the certificates, how we’re getting them.”
At one point, Mr. Rosa’s friend asked why the sales were taking so long. Mr. Rosa responded that he wanted to find a buyer who would not resell the works at auction.
“I am not trying to get busted, so that’s why it’s taking longer,” he wrote.
Mr. Rosa used the proceeds from the sale of two of the paintings for a down payment and mortgage payments on a house in California, prosecutors said.
In 2020, the unidentified first buyer — after trying to help Mr. Rosa sell other works supposedly by Mr. Pettibon — bought the two other forgeries at issue in the indictment.
The scheme began to unravel when the website Artnet published an article about allegations that Mr. Rosa had forged one of the paintings sold to the first buyer, which had been placed for sale at a New York auction house by a subsequent buyer.
Dealers who saw images of one of the paintings being offered for sale “became suspicious when they noticed that there was a seemingly strange yellow-green blended into” Mr. Pettibon’s “normal cobalt blues,” the Artnet article said, adding that “the artist’s signature scrawl seemed a tad too polished” as well.
The day after the article was published, the indictment says, Mr. Rosa emailed his friend that “the secret is out.” Less than a month later, Mr. Rosa left the United States. A few months after that, he sold the California house and tried to transfer the proceeds from the sale abroad.
Mr. Pettibon, 64, first gained widespread attention in the 1980s and ’90s with his comic-style cover art on albums by punk rock bands like Black Flag, the Minutemen and Sonic Youth.
His early pieces often mixed images of baseball greats, Hollywood stars and superheroes with those of bikers, gangsters and infamous American figures like Charles Manson and J. Edgar Hoover.
As his career progressed, he focused more on large works that frequently featured huge waves looming over surfers made to seem tiny. Some of his later paintings have sold for $1 million or more. He was the subject of a major retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan in 2017.
Mr. Rosa himself was once a rising art-world star. The market for his work peaked in fall 2014, when one of his paintings sold at Christie’s in New York for $209,000, according to the Artnet article. A year later, the Artnet article says, a similar work by Mr. Rosa sold at Sotheby’s for $30,000.
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