Roberts stands inside his gallery in front of a Britto lithograph titled Mona Cat, in which a blue kitten is dressed like Mona Lisa. He wears a pink collared shirt and shakes his head as he says, "They shouldn't have put this on me — I'm just a gallery owner. Britto is a millionaire."

The way he tells it, he and Britto were business associates who worked together for three years. Because Britto Central, his gallery on Lincoln Road, does not buy back secondhand pieces, it sometimes refers sellers to one of Roberts's galleries, Max in the Grove.

Last year, Roberts received an email from a Britto employee, he says. She recommended a seller named Marie, who was getting rid of small Britto paintings of flowers for $2,000. Roberts bought them. "They looked good," he remembers. "So I put them on eBay. You live and you learn. Now I'm out thousands of bucks and I can't find this woman." (The case is still open.)

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.

She wasn't the only one allegedly selling phony Brittos. In August 2009, warnings appeared online. "Beware," wrote one buyer on ViewPoints.com, a popular site for online shoppers. "I bought a Britto with a certificate of authenticity... But when I took it to get verified, it turned out to be fake."

The same summer, sloppy-looking Brittos were spotted on the streets and in shops in Tokyo, where fans of American art didn't know any better. In Miami, according to Roberts, a van full of sham lithographs and small Britto paintings began rolling down Biscayne Boulevard near the intersection of NE 123rd Street.

That Britto knockoffs are popping up from Florida to Japan doesn't surprise Alan Bamberger, a San Francisco-based art appraiser and consultant who specializes in spotting inauthentic art. In fact, he strains to think of a modern painter who would be easier to duplicate. "It's not complicated stuff," he says. "Anyone with a reasonable amount of skill could imitate it."

On a recent Tuesday morning, Britto sits in a mahogany leather chair on the 27th floor of downtown Miami's Bank of America building, surrounded by a lawyer, a CEO, and a breathtaking view of the city. He wears a blue Armani dress shirt and pulls on his right index finger.

"Romero is not a litigious person," his lawyer Robert Zarco says in a booming voice. "But one or more people are trying to capitalize on his goodwill."

The artist remains quiet. He doesn't like to dwell on unhappy subjects.


A tall blond couple debates in Russian whether to buy a painting at Britto Central on Lincoln Road. The piece, Tomorrow, features a cartoon woman with orange hair lying down.

With a wave of the hand, the couple calls over an art salesman, who is dressed in black and carrying a calculator the way a waiter might hold a tray. When the pair attempts to haggle, the consultant punches in a figure, holds up the calculator, and says, "This is the best I can do."

The price: a cool $41,000.

Each year, hundreds of paintings are sold at the gallery. Clients come from all over the world — Argentina, China, Italy — to buy art that takes Britto minutes to create.

Today the Russians need a second to talk it over. Where will it hang in the house? Will it survive an airplane ride home? Will it match the carpet?

As they discuss, an art consultant named Thomas Balcker waves New Times into a back room, where dozens of Britto paintings are stored in plastic wrap. A second salesman meets him in back, and the two prop Tomorrow —which they have set aside for the Russians — against a wall.

They both take a step back, cock their heads, and gaze at the piece as if it's made of gold.

"That couple has been back here three times," the salesman says. "But they are going to close the deal."

"Oh, they are definitely going to close," Balcker encourages. "Definitely."

"I know!" his co-worker clarifies. "I mean, look at it. If they don't buy it, somebody else is going to snatch it up!"


The woman sitting at the Miami International Airport information booth is shy but pretty, despite her lazy eye. She would fit in well at a public library. Every day she is required to wear a lively Britto-designed uniform, complete with flamingos and polka-dot palm trees.

When she talks about it, she looks like a tomboy forced to wear a dress. "It doesn't fit my personality," she shrugs.

Then she smiles slyly. "Maybe it's to punish us?"

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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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