A former longtime assistant to the painter Jasper Johns was charged with stealing 22 artworks from the artist’s Connecticut studio and selling them through a Manhattan gallery for a $3.4 million profit.
James Meyer, who was Johns’s assistant for more than 25 years, was arrested at his home Aug. 14 in Salisbury, Connecticut, and appeared in federal court in Hartford, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan said in a statement.
From 2006 to 2012 Meyer removed 22 of the artist’s works from a file drawer at the studio in Sharon and took them to an art gallery in Manhattan to sell without Johns’s permission, according to an indictment unsealed yesterday. The works were pieces Johns, 83, hadn’t yet completed and hadn’t authorized for sale, according to the filing. Meyer told the gallery owner the works were gifts, prosecutors said.
The gallery, which wasn’t identified, sold the works for $6.5 million, of which Meyer received $3.4 million, the indictment states.
He was charged with interstate transportation of stolen property and wire fraud. The maximum prison sentences are 10 years on the stolen property count and 20 years on wire fraud. Meyer was released on $250,000 unsecured bond and ordered to appear in federal court in Manhattan on or before Aug. 23. The conditions of bail also include no contact with Johns.
Johns couldn’t be reached for comment. Matthew Marks Gallery, the gallery in Manhattan that represents Johns, declined to comment on the case. Donna Recant, identified by prosecutors as Meyer’s lawyer, didn’t return calls seeking comment on the charges.
Meyer created fake inventory numbers for the pieces to give the impression they were finished works and authorized by Johns to be sold, according to the indictment. He also created fake pages for the works that were made to appear as if part of a ledger book of registered pieces kept at the studio, the U.S. said. These pages, which he photographed, contained notes that the works had been “gifted” to Meyer.
The photographed pages were e-mailed by the gallery to prospective buyers.
Meyer required each buyer to sign an agreement that the artworks be kept private for at least eight years and not loaned, exhibited or re-sold during that time, the U.S. said.
One of the most important living American artists, Johns is known for his paintings of the American flag, targets, numbers and letters. In 2008, an exhibition of his work, “Jasper Johns: Gray,” was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His auction record of $28.6 million was set in 2010 at Christie’s in New York for the painting “Flag,” which once hung in the bedroom of author Michael Crichton in Los Angeles. “Flag” was created between 1960 and 1966 with wax encaustic and newspaper.
Meyer is an artist whose most recent exhibition, “Shadow,” was shown through April 27 at Gering & Lopez Gallery in Manhattan. His watercolors depicted a shadowy figure of a boy playing with a water bucket in a field. Earlier works showed children playing hide-and-seek and jumping through hula hoops.
He attended the School of Visual Arts in New York and became Johns’s studio assistant in 1985, according to his website.
Meyer helped develop an after-school art studio at a high school where students work on projects under the supervision of local artists, his website states. He and his wife, Amy Jenkins, have two children.
The case is U.S. v. Meyer, 13-cr-00604, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).