By 2005, Romero Britto installations had sprouted at malls, water parks, major intersections, and on the sides of condo buildings. At Miami City Hall, several commissioners kept Britto sculptures on their desks and lithographs on the walls, which the artist sent them as gifts.

Which is fine, says Wynwood gallery owner Anthony Spinello. Except we're all forced to look at it. "It makes me cringe," he says. "At some point, it just becomes grotesque... I don't think it represents contemporary art in Miami at all."

Midtown photographer John Gynell wrinkles his nose when he talks about Britto. "There are so many good artists out there," he says. "Why does this guy have a monopoly over our public art space?"

A Britto-ized Mini Cooper.
A Britto-ized Mini Cooper.
Romero Britto works inside his unmarked Wynwood studio.
C. Stiles
Romero Britto works inside his unmarked Wynwood studio.

That commissioners like his art and want it in public places is no surprise, says art critic Jerry Saltz. The stuff is tailor-made for bureaucracy: It's safe, simple, and pleasing. Put one on a city street, and you won't get phone calls from upset mothers.

But trouble was brewing. By February 2005, a drama was unfolding with Miami Beach's Art in Public Places Committee. Members threatened to charge Berkowitz, the developer, a $500,000 fee to erect the enormous palm tree/beach ball installation at his Fifth & Alton shopping center.

Remembers committee Chairwoman Pola Reydburd: "We felt we needed to see what other artists had to offer creatively."

University of Miami art professor Paula Harper sat on the committee for six years. She explains, "He's a very savvy designer. It's just that it isn't art."

In the end, Berkowitz, who owns the land, had the final say.

Two years later, in 2007, the county commission debated whether to allow Britto to design airport worker uniforms. Only Commissioner Natacha Seijas spoke up: "My maid wears better clothes than this."

In October 2009, after much debate, the giant aluminum palm trees went up at Berkowitz's Fifth & Alton mall. Anybody driving east on the MacArthur Causeway would now be greeted with bright-pink polka dots.

But within a month, commuters noticed something peculiar: Gold spray paint had blasted away one of the rainbow-colored fronds. Somebody, it appeared, was finally protesting.


It's just before 3 a.m. at the corner of Washington Avenue and Fifth Street— South Beach's party central — when a shiny black Bentley swerves into oncoming traffic. It almost strikes a moving car and then a parked one. There's a whirl of blue police lights, and the driver slams on his brakes.

The date is March 26, 2009, and inside the Bentley sits a man with "a flushed face, bloodshot watery eyes, and slurred speech." He fumbles with his car registration, according to police reports. "Officer, I live across the bridge," the man tells the cop. "Give me a break."

It is Romero Britto, who has come from a party at Miami Beach's posh hotel the Fontainebleau. Media from London to New York would soon report Britto's alcohol level was nearly double the legal threshold.

Britto would plead guilty, do 100 hours of community service, and later tell New Times: "I was embarrassed. Nobody should drink and drive."

It was the beginning of Britto's legal trouble — and a sign his luck might be running out. The following March, SunTrust Bank filed foreclosure papers on a yellow South Miami-Dade home he had sold to Kansas City Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt for $635,395. Britto made a mistake with paperwork, according to court documents, which caused a big financial headache. Reached at the house, Betancourt's fiancée would say only: "There were problems, but we settled it in court." Then she drove away in a white SUV.

But an even larger lawsuit was brewing. In mid-2009, a butterfly painting popped up on eBay. Its round wings were full of squiggles and, in typical Britto style, bright reds and yellows. In the bottom right corner was the artist's distinct and bubbly signature.

Only it wasn't really Britto's.

His lawyers would soon allege the painting — dubbed Untitled Butterfly — was one of at least 13 Britto fakes created in South Florida. According to the federal lawsuit, the pieces had been counterfeit, forged, and then sold online to a shop called Griffen Gallery in Edina, Minnesota, a sleepy suburb of Minneapolis.

The alleged culprit: Gables Galleries on Miracle Mile. The gallery had designed paintings "to be similar if not identical to Britto's copyrighted works," which caused Britto "irreversible damage."

So the artist filed a lawsuit to send fakers a message: Steal my art and I'll see you in court.

This is how the Coral Gables operation worked, according to court documents: Les Roberts "assigns fake number items to artwork" and then "forges fake certificates of authenticity."

His son, Les Roberts Jr., was "able to gain access... to the inner workings of [Britto's] private studio," where he did research. A third partner, Silvia Castro, would then sell the paintings online and to galleries. (Castro and Roberts Jr. did not return calls seeking comment.)

Les Roberts denies they created the sham art.

But he has a hunch who did: the team of underpaid assistants who work at Britto's Wynwood studio. "They make next to nothing," he says. "After a while, what do you think is going to happen?"

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4 comments
pacomartini
pacomartini

My name is Paul Thomas Martin and am an artist currently working and living in Miami Beach, Florida. I'm an academic artist with a BFA in painting. I moved to Miami at the end of 1997 to work for an art restoration company...unfortunately the company was in trouble so I had to start seeking new employment. I suddenly found myself working for Romero Britto at his flag ship gallery, BRITTO CENTRAL in sales. I was very familiar with his work from a previous gallery I worked for in my hometown of Baltimore. I already knew how people reacted to his work and was very grateful for the opportunity to work for a brilliant marketer like Romero. I knew working for him would be an education I didn't receive in college. 

After a year or so I was named as Director of Exhibitions in addition to my sales position and was responsible for designing the aesthetic of the gallery as well as curating two museum shows for him in Coral Springs and Boca Raton, Florida. Perhaps they can't be considered world class museums, but Ms O'Neill glosses right over those and the list of other museums who have found Britto's work worthy enough to invite him into their spaces.  I also have to wonder what credentials Ms O'Neill has in art?

I guess what I'm getting at is that I find it remarkable that Romero can be so easily dismissed as an artist. Is he an academically trained artist? No he is not...but neither was Grandma Moses. For some, his work may be "unchallenging" but having visited some of the worlds most respected museums, I've seen a multitude of work that I've found "unchallenging" yet they get labeled as "Masterpieces". 

This country no longer supports the Arts. The budgets of the NEA and NEH have been slashed to laughable amounts. Brilliantly, Romero has forged his own path without the help of a single government entity or grant...he is entirely self-made. So, is he an artist? As a fellow artist it's hard for me to say (there are times when i question what my own work is)...however, I've seen the man painting away until the wee hours of the morning so no one can accuse him of getting where he is from sheer "luck"...I know very few people who have worked harder at their careers than this man. 

He's only human so the accounts I've read of his style as an employer have to be thought about in context. If your boss doesn't think your doing your job, you get fired. Successful people can often be VERY challenging to work for. I sucked at sales and I got fired off of the sales floor. But Romero really respected my work as a curator and gave me control over all that was entailed in doing that job.

What I like most about Romero is his generosity. His record of philanthropy in Miami is well documented but his generosity goes beyond that. Romero knew of my ambitions to be an artist and once he saw my work he quickly deduced that there was an opportunity for the both of us to be had. He invited me to collaborate on a collection of work together. At the time, it was something he hadn't done before...sharing his "canvas". As a nobody in the art world, I was more than happy to see where this project would go. In November of 2003 our exhibition, strangely and prophetically titled "Under The Influence", opened at BRITTO CENTRAL.  Our styles aren't even remotely similar yet the way our styles were implemented in the work created a striking balance. The show sold out. This man knows what he is doing.  (you can see the collaboration on my website paulthomasmartin.com)

This article was amazingly under researched and the Media community regarding the arts is what  is truly wrong with Miami (has Ms O'Neill been to the Wynwood Art District?) ...since I have lived here there hasn't been a single credible art critic on staff at any of Miami's media outlets. That's the real problem in Miami...not Romero Britto. Miami is NOT just an airport surrounded by malls...if the success of Art Basel tells us anything it's that. You who write just aren't looking hard enough and ultimately, YOU are the one responsible for Romero Britto's success by your inability to provide real coverage of Miami's art scene. Again, you aren't looking hard enough!


authenticart
authenticart

I just wanted to let you know that I for one was more than a little angry after reading the article written by Natalie O'Neill in the New Times. One of our clients that has collected over 200K in your work from us forwarded it to me.

 O'Neill is a bad writer. O"Neill apparently did not even take the time to verify her facts with regard to Les Roberts and the forgeries that he created in an attempt to extort money from you and hurt your reputation.

O'Neill failed to interview any of the thousands of collectors and critics that find your work refreshing, interesting and important!
If your work was only popular in Miami or South Florida O'Neill could make the point that it was simply luck and charm that has made you successful. The fact that people from all over the world have responded positively to your work and have found the need to collect your artwork simply can't be luck and charm! I congratulate you on you success and I am sure that  your legacy as an important pop artist has already been established.

Jeff Koons can make sculptures of hearts and pool floats and the critics considered him a visionary. Chisto can wrap the Keys in pink plastic and hang curtains in Central Park and he is considered a genius by critics. The fact of the matter is that you are both a visionary and a genius. 
Thank you for all of the incredible, unique, and important artwork you have created for the world.
 

juststeve
juststeve

He is not an artist. He's lucky. Very, very lucky that anyone has bought is overpriced cartoonish crap. A 10 year old could be more imaginative and original. Absolute shit.

pacomartini
pacomartini

@juststeve try and recreate one of his pieces...they are deceptive in their simplicity...creating the perfection he achieves in the execution of his work is very, very difficult.


 
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