How a Foundry Owner in Queens Got Rich Selling Imitations of World-Famous Sculptures

Brian Ramnarine during his 2014 trial.
Brian Ramnarine during his 2014 trial.
Ramsay de Give Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/Newscom

When you consider how many things can go wrong at a metal foundry, it's a miracle that anything comes out right. The range of potential catastrophes is almost infinite. Molds crack, wax shatters; molten bronze does strange things at 1,700 degrees.

But a great many things came out right at Long Island City's Empire Bronze Foundry in the 1980s, mostly because of Brian Ramnarine. The stout, thick-fingered artisan owned and operated the foundry for more than a decade, achieving a great deal of notoriety in the world of fine sculpture along the way. The role of a metal foundry is to execute an artistic work in perfect replica; to take an original form in clay or plaster or carved stone and render it in cold metal. And for a period beginning in the late '80s and lasting through the late '90s, only a few dozen artisans in the United States, maybe fewer, could handle bronze like Ramnarine.

A Guyanese immigrant of almost unbelievably humble beginnings, Ramnarine, at the height of his success, was producing work for some of the world's most acclaimed sculptors — artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana, who entrusted Ramnarine with their work and their legacy.

He was meticulous, according to those who know him. And, ever present on his workshop floor, Ramnarine fully inhabited an environment that most people would find exhausting. His specialty was lost-wax casting, an ancient, painstaking method of metal production that has been in use since the days of the Mayan empire. A large sculpture might take more than a year to move through the entire process, which begins simply enough with a given artist's original work — in stone, clay, wood — and proceeds through at least seven distinct stages before it is complete.

For all the minutiae, for all the waiting, it's easy to see how someone might fall in love with the work, which is at times collaborative but also, by turns, meditative and intensely private; intricate and precise but with a whiff of brawn.

A nearly 30-year-old recording exists that shows Ramnarine in his element, hard at work in his foundry. The ersatz promotional video, shot in 1987, makes it clear why the artists he worked with considered him a kindred spirit. Narrating the process as he goes, Ramnarine speaks in almost spiritual terms, with a dreamy half-smile, likening a bronze surface to human skin, and explaining how he brings metal to life.

But that part of his life is now over, or at least nearly so. Ramnarine is expected to report to federal prison on January 19, having been sentenced this summer to 30 months for a fraud scheme that was as brazen as it was long running. The operation, which was uncovered after he'd made perhaps millions of dollars selling knockoff works of some of his most trusted clients, cost Ramnarine his business, his reputation, and, in many cases, his friends.

Ramnarine was likely producing forged artwork for more than 20 years, becoming a very rich man along the way. What's really remarkable is that the scheme didn't unravel much sooner. As one of his victims, the artist Kenny Scharf, told the Voice, it was impossible to think he'd get away with it.

"It was greed mixed with insanity," Scharf says.

Click for a larger version.
Click for a larger version.

In 1954, Jasper Johns, a foundational figure in what would become the Pop Art movement and an artist who is today regarded as among America's most significant living masters, created a seminal work called Flag. The deceptively simple-looking representation of an American flag, made with newspaper clippings and a wax-based paint called encaustic, was received by critics at the time as indicative of a new direction in American art.

Over the decades that followed after he'd first painted it, Johns would make several other pieces based on the same concept. There was a washed-out, nearly colorless rendition called White Flag in 1954; a version with three superimposed canvases, Three Flags, in 1958; and, in 1960, an iteration fashioned from a substance known as "sculpt metal." Applied with a brush, sculpt metal is essentially a thick paint impregnated with powdered aluminum. Once it's allowed to dry, it creates a heavily textured surface that can be buffed to a metal finish.

As a three-dimensional variation on the original 1954 painting, the sculpt-metal Flag lent itself well to casting in bronze, and Johns created four — and only four — duplicates in the early 1960s. One of those duplicate sculptures was given to John F. Kennedy; the others are in private collections or museums.

Johns has a habit of working and reworking the same subjects, and he revisited the Flag sculpture once again in 1990. "At the time I was investigating the possibility of having the object cast in gold," Johns would later testify in court, "and we needed to figure out how much metal would be used and what the cost would be."

When he set out on that project in 1990, Johns approached Ramnarine, the foundry owner's star very much on the rise, to make a wax duplicate of the piece, an important part of the casting process.

Ramnarine did so, with all of his characteristically excellent workmanship, and Johns stuck the wax in the refrigerator at his home in Sharon, Connecticut. He ultimately determined that a gold casting would be too expensive, and the wax remained in its somewhat undignified storage spot for years.

Then, in 1993, Johns was approached by an art dealer who was looking to authenticate a Flag sculpture he had recently acquired. The piece, if Johns could authenticate it, may have been worth upwards of $10 million, according to court transcripts.

But Johns recognized right away that this Flag casting, while technically perfect, was nothing he'd ever made. For one thing, he'd recount later in court testimony, the edge of the piece was all wrong.

"One detail is, you'll notice," Johns testified, describing the fraudulent piece a prosecutor was holding, "that the frame is smooth along the outer edges, whereas the original piece more or less imitates wood with a rough grain. That's been polished off and removed." The signature on the back of the piece didn't match Johns's, either. And the series number — engraved on the back of any finished sculpture, for recordkeeping purposes — didn't correspond to anything in his records.

It didn't take Johns long to do the math. Though he'd tried to recover the molds after the work was completed, Johns strongly suspected Ramnarine still had them in his workshop. If that was true, Ramnarine had everything he needed to make a perfect copy of Johns's work.

When he was presented with the forgery, Johns, then one of Ramnarine's most important clients, angrily crossed out his faked signature on the back of the piece. He also severed ties with Ramnarine; the two never worked together again. Johns didn't go to the police, not then, but word got around in the small community of sculptors in New York City. It was the first memorable blow to Ramnarine's credibility, but it was hardly the last.

 

Jasper Johns's signature on a work faked by Ramnarine.
Jasper Johns's signature on a work faked by Ramnarine.
Ramsay de Give

Lost-wax casting begins with a specially formulated liquid silicone applied directly onto the original. The silicone takes on the contour of every marking, from the fingernail beds on a statue's hands to its intricately etched irises. When the flexible material hardens, it's usually mounted inside a shell of plaster or some other rigid material, so as to hold its shape. The silicone and shell together form the "mold," an exact, 360-degree replica of the artist's work in negative.

The mold is really the most precious result of the process; it's also the one that got Ramnarine in trouble. Because it's an exact duplicate of the original — and because it's also reusable and relatively durable — it can be used to make one copy of the artwork or a thousand. An artist authorizes only a certain number of each piece. But there's nothing stopping someone with access to the mold from simply making a few extras. And done properly, no one would ever know, absent some very careful investigation, the difference between the first duplicate and the last.

Once the mold is finished, the next step is to create what's simply called "a wax." The mold is filled with molten wax and emptied, filled and emptied, with time to harden between each pass. Eventually a thin layer of wax builds up inside the mold. When it's removed, you have a perfect, positive replica of the sculpture, in a thin layer of wax — three-eighths of an inch is a common benchmark — hollow and fragile, like a chocolate Easter bunny.

Pour liquid bronze over that wax form, of course, and you'd have nothing left. So the next step is to encase the wax in a ceramic shell that will ultimately become the receptacle for the liquid metal, be it bronze or silver, aluminum or even gold.

The wax form, which is now just a pale-red version of the original sculpture, is then dipped in a binding agent — a "slurry" — that looks a great deal like a vanilla milkshake and smells like nothing.

The wax, coated in the binding agent, is then dipped alternately into a fine-grain silica sand, like sugar, and then back into the slurry — and then again the silica, and then the slurry. Allowed to harden between each trip through the sand, the wax slowly forms a shell.

To harden fully, the ceramic needs to be fired. It's at this stage that the wax is burned off, or "lost," leaving a largely formless mass with a texture somewhat like stucco. The inside, however, retains all the detail that was once in the wax form.

The last step is a rather frantic affair. The metal needs to maintain its temperature as it enters the mold, so that it will flow into every corner and crevice, meaning this phase must be completed in a matter of minutes. The metal is poured in a white-hot stream out of great kettles by workers in protective foil suits. Crack the ceramic off with a mallet, and there's your bronze.

In the footage from 1987, you get a sense of Ramnarine's exacting standards. It's not the soft-spoken artist here, but the taskmaster, supremely focused, barking orders at his crew. It's only when he cracks the ceramic shell, sweat damping his dark curls, and the sculpture begins to emerge, that his dreamy smile returns. "Perfect," he says.

Court files suggest Ramnarine — born in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1954 and raised in the rural countryside of that tiny South American nation — endured the kind of hardships that go hand in hand with growing up poor. The middle of three brothers, Ramnarine's father died when he was 11, leaving his mother to make ends meet with agricultural work in the rice fields surrounding Georgetown. Soon after that, he left school and began working full time to help support the family. He never learned to read in any real sense — a court filing describes him as "completely illiterate."

Through his attorney, Troy Smith, Ramnarine declined to speak with the Voice for this story.

In 1975, Ramnarine made his way to New York City, where his mother had been living for a few years already. He arrived with some important skills; back home in Guyana, Ramnarine worked as a welder. According to his friend Thom Cooney Crawford, a sculptor who would remain close with Ramnarine up through his conviction this year, he'd mastered the skill while repairing boats, and set out on a career in metal work when he arrived in the States.

Roman Bronze Works in Corona, New York, one of the country's oldest foundries, was the obvious destination. "He really wanted to work there," Cooney Crawford says, "and he had to wait a number of months to get a chance. He was pretty persistent in trying to get hired there."

Truly skilled welders, ones who excel at the kind of flawless seams demanded in an art foundry, are few and far between, so Ramnarine was already ahead of the game. But he was also a fast learner, and quickly became a standout. Known for his charisma, Ramnarine networked enthusiastically with the artists who came to Roman Bronze. "He would pay attention to them," Cooney Crawford says. "He created a relationship with them."

He made enough of an impression that people in the art community began to encourage him to strike out on his own. It was something that would benefit all parties; if an artist had a good relationship with Ramnarine, and Ramnarine was running his own boutique operation, the artist would be assured of plenty of personalized attention.

With the help of some of the sculptors Ramnarine had befriended, he started Empire Bronze in what Cooney Crawford describes as a "tiny space" in Long Island City.

Although the facility was small and lacked the sophisticated equipment found in the larger shops, Ramnarine's new venture quickly gained cachet. By the close of the 1980s, he had as many as 15 employees, and his foundry had become one of the most respected businesses of its kind on the East Coast.

"His reputation really skyrocketed in a short amount of time," Cooney Crawford says. "He went from, like, a garage casting foundry into a very large facility." At his peak, Cooney Crawford says, Ramnarine "was not just casting work, he was casting work for a lot of very reputable artists." Johns, Indiana, Saint Clair Cemin, and others became regular clients. Soon Ramnarine acquired more space and increased his volume. By 1993, he had expanded the business to include an art gallery, which was attached to the foundry.

Cooney Crawford and the other artists Ramnarine worked with during the early years say his meticulous standards were appealing. "He was incredibly talented," says Allen Packer, another sculptor who knew Ramnarine in those days. But he also had a passion that was attractive in someone who would be, in effect, a part of the creative team.

Anyone not steeped in the world of sculpture might be surprised to learn that foundries play such an outsize role in the creation of art. The equipment required to work bronze is prohibitively expensive for an artist to acquire for him- or herself, and the process necessitates the help of a crew of artisans who often specialize in the various stages. It just makes more sense to outsource.

So even the wealthiest of sculptors typically contract with a foundry to complete their works, and, more often than not, in the end, it's a collaborative process. It's not uncommon for an artist to simply explain to the foundry's staff what he or she wants and expect the workers to figure out how to achieve it. Experienced foundry workers' technical skills — their knowledge of metallurgy, for instance, or the ability to weld an invisible seam — are essential.

Sometimes that collaboration is so close as to blur the lines of authorship. It's the artist's vision, but in a very real sense, it's the artisan's work that ultimately goes on display. And Ramnarine eagerly embraced that nebulous role. Cooney Crawford remembers Ramnarine showing up to openings with a rag, buffing the finished sculptures and beaming right along with the artists themselves. He was clearly not just in it for the money.

"He actually tunes in to the work," Cooney Crawford says. "He has real passion, and he has love for art. And as an artist, when someone really relates to what I'm doing, that is very enticing, very enticing."

The artisans in a foundry are often artists themselves, and extremely skilled ones at that. But their role is not a creative one, and that can be frustrating for some.

Upcoming Events

Ramnarine's crimes have spooked those in the foundry world enough that no one in the industry contacted by the Voice wanted their names publicly associated with him. But one well-regarded sculpture technician, who now works at a foundry just north of New York City, says she often sees new employees at her foundry who chafe at the notion that they are merely conduits between the artist and the end product. It can be especially galling, she admits, when the artist is simply not as skilled as the artisans working on his or her behalf. Any foundry of any size is likely doing work for clients who are not exactly artistic geniuses. There are always going to be the workaday lawn ornaments and the vanity projects.

When they care about the work, the technician says, artisans might be tempted to put a little bit of themselves into the piece. Maybe they add more intricate details around the eyes, or make the nose a little truer to life. But that's not their job, she says, and it's a dangerous impulse.

"I mean, what do you want in life?" the technician says. "Do you want to be famous, front-page news? That's fine. Then you make your own art. To be an artisan in collaboration with other artists is behind-the-scenes stuff."

At the foundry where she currently works, there are strict controls in place to prevent the kind of scheme Ramnarine was running. "There's no such thing as a reject," she says. Any pieces that aren't up to snuff are melted down — no one takes an imperfect piece home for the mantel. Molds are carefully accounted for and regarded, above all, as a liability. "The temptation is always there," she says.

The technician says she knows of Ramnarine but does not know him well, and she's uncomfortable speculating on his motives. But it's not hard to see how a person like Ramnarine, equal parts charm and swagger, might be unsatisfied playing the role that she, a woman who projects confidence like a floodlight, finds so rewarding.

"Does anyone know the name of any of the leather crafters who make Manolo Blahnik shoes?" she says. "His name is on it. He's the artist, the designer, but the craftsmen that work on these thousand-dollar pocketbooks, who are they?" She shrugs. "That's their role. If you don't like it, find another game."

 

Like the '80s, the '90s were good to Ramnarine. The incident with Johns in 1994 proved to be just a hiccup. Ramnarine's reputation took a hit, but not a fatal one; his foundry kept expanding, and he managed to hang on to many of his most prestigious clients.

Packer, the sculptor, says he had the ability to charm. He also had a taste for luxury. Rubbing elbows with some of the world's wealthiest artists, Packer says, had an intoxicating effect on Ramnarine. He increasingly took on the trappings of wealth. Cooney Crawford noticed it too.

"Growing up as he did, he never had anything. He wanted to gain material possessions and he wanted to gain a sense of fame," Cooney Crawford says. Ramnarine dressed well. He went to the right restaurants. He generally behaved just like the bold-faced names he surrounded himself with. At some point, when things were on the upswing, Ramnarine bought a speedboat. "It was this 30-, 40-foot cigarette boat," as Packer remembers it, "bright yellow. Just so ostentatious."

In big letters on the side, Ramnarine had painted Empire Bronze.

Incidents like the one Ramnarine had with Johns in 1990 — creating extra, unauthorized copies of works he was hired to cast — would become something of a modus operandi for Ramnarine over the years. It's not clear how much Ramnarine made from selling the knockoffs — what some in the industry call "midnight castings" — because he was caught only a few times. But a single unauthorized piece could sell for more than $30,000. And people who know Ramnarine say it's likely that he sold works of that caliber routinely.

But the unauthorized copies Ramnarine turned out were not, of course, fakes in the sense that we usually think of them. If a forgery is an identical copy of an artist's work, then every foundry, really, is in the forgery business.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, one of the most prolific art forgers in history, made millions with a scheme that was far more typical, but fundamentally different from what Ramnarine was involved in. A skilled artist in his own right, Beltracchi spent decades making not copies of existing pieces, but completely invented works. He would buy old canvases and use historically accurate paints to create a new piece in the style of Max Ernst or some other blue-chip artist, then pass them off as "lost" works. In that sense, he was creating true forgeries, things the attributed artist never had any hand in.

Each "forged," or unauthorized, sculpture was cast in Ramnarine's foundry, with molds created by his workers. But the genuine sculptures were created the same way. The only thing the former lacked was an artist's authorization. And if an artist's authorization is what makes a work "authentic," it's enough to prompt a little navel-gazing about what, really, we value in art. Why is an original van Gogh worth millions, and consigned to a museum, when a perfect digital reproduction is just a poster on a college kid's wall?

Jeff Taylor, a professor at Purchase College who studies art forgery, says a case like Ramnarine's raises some thorny questions: Is it the work itself we value, the physical form? Or is it something more, a connection to the artist?

"It's a deeply philosophical problem," Taylor says. "We find this all the time: A painting hangs in a museum for 20 years, and people love it, and now you find out it wasn't by the original artist, and now no one wants it....Art only comes around when people value authorship, and if that's taken away, it just dramatically loses value. Not because the form has changed, but because the authorship has been taken way."

The peculiarities of foundry work likely helped Ramnarine ride out what would amount to a 20-year scheme to sell unauthorized works, with numerous close calls along the way. It would have taken diligent research to determine if a given piece was authorized. And, Taylor says, dealers often aren't all that interested in figuring out if a work is really on the level. It's far more profitable not to ask too many questions.

But a foundry's unique business model probably helped Ramnarine obscure the paper trail, or at least would have given him some plausible deniability.

It's routine, for example, for a foundry to take on a job with no cash transaction ever taking place. Instead, the parties often rely on barter. In such cases, the foundry agrees to underwrite the raw materials and labor, and as payment keeps one of the finished sculptures. In some cases, a foundry might strike a deal with a collector to cast a series of pieces — a single large statue can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce — and recoup costs by selling the pieces later, with a portion going to the dealer and a portion to the artist. Ramnarine did this frequently, those who know him say, and since he performed a double role as a dealer through his gallery, it was all the easier.

These kinds of informal arrangements mean it's not unusual for a foundry to have extremely valuable artworks legitimately in its possession for sale. If a framing store were shopping around a Picasso, that might raise eyebrows. But a foundry being in possession of a highly regarded artist's work isn't all that suspicious.

Ramnarine would later try to hide behind these murky, often poorly documented agreements. In the case of Johns's Flag, Ramnarine tried to claim in court, years later, that the artist had given the piece to him as a gift, also not unheard of in a field where foundry owners sometimes seem more like a part of the team than the provider of a service.

But Packer says he always thought of Ramnarine as a bit of a hustler, one who liked to project something of a tough-guy image. He tells a story of Ramnarine wielding a gun during a conversation the two had in or around 1994. It was about that time, Packer adds, that word was starting to get out about Ramnarine's practices.

"It was like, 'Look at me,'" Packer recalls today. "'I'm a tough guy. I'm an important guy.' But I think it was really a sign of his paranoia."

Ramnarine operated in a small world, and the Johns incident, which had happened just recently, wasn't exactly a secret. By the time the gun came out, there were plenty of whispers about his honesty. He owed Packer a significant amount of money at the time, for materials and projects they had both invested in.

By the late 1990s, Ramnarine's troubles were increasingly hard to ignore. An article in Art+Auction magazine from around that time documents widespread anger among artists who worked with Ramnarine. One artist described him as a "cross between a gangster and a cult leader."

"Brian called me up, sometime in the late '90s," Cooney Crawford remembers. "He was very sad, crying and so forth, because everything had fallen apart."

The whispers and bad blood came to a head in 2000, when Ramnarine was sued over a business deal gone bad.

Sometime at the tail end of the millennium, Ramnarine had agreed to cast a series of sculptures by an artist named Kenny Scharf. Part of the first wave of New York street artists to rise to mainstream prominence in the early 1980s, Scharf is best known for his bright, cartoonish, sci-fi-themed paintings. But he also worked in other forms, including sculpture, and had gone to Ramnarine to cast a number of his pieces.

In one of the complex deals that had become commonplace for Ramnarine, the foundry owner had set out to sell seven Scharf sculptures to another dealer by the name of Janet Grimes. According to the Art+Auction article, Grimes had already invested nearly $60,000 in the deal when Ramnarine backed out and sold the pieces to someone else, refusing to give Grimes her money back.

In 2000, she filed a civil suit to recover the money, and won the right to seize property from the foundry to repay the debt. A number of works were seized by the court — a small victory for Grimes — but the ordeal created considerable bad blood between the parties, several sources told the Voice. Roy Anderson, one of Grimes's associates, was particularly upset, and seems to have taken it upon himself to aggressively unmask Ramnarine's business practices.

In 2001, renowned Brazilian sculptor Saint Clair Cemin, who had worked with Ramnarine off and on for more than a decade, got a call from Anderson, who said he suspected that there was a knockoff of one of Cemin's sculptures, entitled Lady and Lyon, in the collection of a New Jersey pediatrician named Neil Kolsky. He told Cemin to check it out.

When Cemin arrived at Kolsky's house, the sculpture was on display in his living room. It certainly looked like a piece that he had hired Ramnarine to cast a few years earlier, but something about it seemed off.

"There was something strange about the patina that I didn't like," Cemin testified at Ramnarine's trial earlier this year. "It was...too shiny. There was something I didn't like."

It looked like Ramnarine had made an extra copy, a replay of the incident with Johns. The proof was engraved on the bottom of the sculpture. "I looked at the numbering...I think it was three of three," Cemin told the court. "But the three of three was sold in Mexico, and I knew very well the collector."

The piece was an unauthorized duplicate, it seemed clear to Cemin, and, as it turned out, Lady and Lyon wasn't the only Cemin piece Ramnarine had apparently copied. He'd made unauthorized duplicates, Cemin believed, of at least three other works, sometimes disguising them by changing their names. Aquarella, for instance, became Three Bronze Dogs With Paint Palettes; Abstract Not became Mother and Child.

In court years later, Cemin could hardly contain his disgust. Another of the ripped-off pieces, The Reading Baby, was structurally the same as his work, but "the patina is horrendous...the original patina was not like this color. It was not shiny like that," Cemin testified.

Anderson wasn't done yet, either. He also made a call to Scharf. As Anderson related it to the artist at the time, he had purchased what appeared to be an unauthorized Scharf sculpture from Ramnarine, and had confronted him at his foundry. When he did so, he said, he had seen multiple castings of Scharf's work, right on the foundry floor, bearing identical edition marks.

"Anderson wasn't having that," Scharf recalls. "He was really angry."

The Voice was unable to locate Anderson to comment for this story.

Kolsky, for his part, who at one time considered Ramnarine a friend, was unaware that he'd purchased a knockoff Cemin. Kolsky says that he feels silly today for having ever trusted him.

"He's very charming and slick," Kolsky says. "He befriends you, and you fall into this charm of his, and as time goes by, he uses you, whether it be to borrow money or to sell you phony pieces of art. He's a con artist. That's all he is."

He and Cemin ultimately settled on a trade to resolve the problem: Cemin took the unauthorized pieces and had them destroyed, and in return, he gave Kolsky a different sculpture, this one authorized and authentic.

 

Kenny Scharf, also ripped off by Ramnarine
Kenny Scharf, also ripped off by Ramnarine

In 2002, Ramnarine was charged with fraud in a Queens County court. The New York Times noted that, as Long Island City's "first big-time forgery case," Ramnarine's indictment was evidence that the city was "coming of age as an art scene." One collector had reportedly spent $92,000 on unauthorized Scharf sculptures.

After being convicted, Ramnarine was sentenced to five years' probation and was ordered to pay $100,000 in restitution.

But somehow — and no one's really sure how this is possible — life pretty much went on. Ramnarine continued to cast sculptures and, apparently, went on making knockoffs to sell out the back door.

The impact of this kind of forgery, Cemin told the court this summer, can be dire in financial terms. "When pieces appear on the market with duplicate numbers," he testified, "false dates, wrong names, no provenance, completely different finish from any sculpture, it is devastating to me, to my career and to my credibility. I think the worst part is the misrepresentation of my work."

Asked how Ramnarine managed, after all of this, to avoid being run out of town, Scharf is wry. "Do you know much about the art world?" Scharf asks with a chuckle. "It's pretty shady." As bad as Ramnarine was, Scharf and others say, the art world is full of hustlers and people barely scraping by. So he wasn't as notable as he might have seemed.

Still, Scharf tells the Voice, Ramnarine's betrayal was damaging in ways that aren't just about dollars and cents. A lot of transactions in the art world are predicated on trust, Scharf says. And he and Ramnarine were more than business associates. Maybe not friends, exactly, but their relationship wasn't simply transactional.

"He seemed to really love the art and the artists," Scharf says. "So it was hurtful. It was very hurtful."

And the brazen nature of the crime also made it baffling. Ramnarine knew the art world well. He knew how meticulous and particular the artists were about their work. He also knew that the arena of art dealers and collectors is a small one. Did he honestly think he wouldn't be found out? "You can't believe that you're going to get away with that," Scharf says. "I just don't know what was going on in his brain. The only thing I could think of was that maybe he was a drug addict, or he had a gambling problem."

In late 2010, things really started to unravel for Ramnarine. It was the same old game, but now he was rolling much larger dice. When he tried, again, to sell an unauthorized version of Johns's Flag — for $11 million — the FBI finally got involved.

Ramnarine was ultimately convicted, in October, of wire fraud — an odd but also serious and federal charge, and one to which he'd opened himself by dint of having used the telephone and internet to try to hawk his latest forgeries. He was facing as much as 10 years in prison, but managed to get off with 30 months. Incorrigible to the end, when he was released on bond in 2012 — still under federal indictment — Ramnarine again sold unauthorized works, by sculptor Robert Indiana, and yet another by Cemin, netting a total of about $30,000. He was caught, court papers suggest, after a gallery owner tipped off the authorities. The charges were tacked on to those already pending in the Johns case.

Ramnarine failed to respond to numerous requests to comment on this story — including questions about some specific allegations — delivered over several weeks through his lawyer, Troy Smith. Just before publication, Ramnarine agreed to an interview and later backed out, saying he would answer questions only if paid for his participation. The Voice as a matter of policy does not pay for interviews.

Many of the people who knew him see Ramnarine's fall as a just punishment that was long overdue. Scharf's anger about the incident, for example, remains fairly acute.

"I really think he was premeditating, and devious, and he should really suffer for that crime. Some people should be in jail," Scharf says.

Cooney Crawford, for his part, sees Ramnarine as a more complicated figure.

"He's got an angry side," Cooney Crawford says, "and he's got this other side that's really gentle and kind. But he's got something that flares up, and he's ready to fight before he thinks."

If Ramnarine hadn't gotten greedy — if he had stuck to what he did well, in the foundry — Cooney Crawford says, things might have been different. "He was conspiring against what his real talents were. If he had continued to concentrate on his gift, and worked with these individual artists — if he'd not tried to sell, not tried to wheel and deal — he would be in a very successful position today.

"It's really a sort of Shakespearean tragedy," Cooney Crawford continues. "There's this flaw in a very charismatic and gifted person."

Packer remembers a day in the mid '90s, when things were still going well for Ramnarine. It was after the first incident with Johns, but still, the foundry was humming along. It was hot, a typical midsummer New York afternoon, and Ramnarine invited Packer to take a spin through the harbor on his boat, brand-new at the time. They grabbed some Greek food in Astoria, Queens, launched from the marina near City Island, and turned up the East River.

As they were cruising by the Manhattan coastline, taking in the view, something went wrong.

"I think we hit something, I don't know, some detritus in the water," Packer recalls.

Something got dislodged, and the boat started taking on water. Ramnarine seemed unsure of how to deal with the situation, and ultimately, the two had to call for help and get the boat towed to shore.

"Looking back, it was so perfect," Packer says. "He was in over his head."


[

jcampbell@villagevoice.com

]


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >