Say what you will about Miami's king of brightly hued beach balls and cartoonish faces: Romero Britto's art is popular and pricey enough to spark a network of forgers. The artist launched his own federal suit against a group of fraudsters in 2010. But at least one of the dealers who bought and resold those fakes says he hasn't found justice yet. A Minneapolis gallery is striking back, and targeting Britto himself, whom the gallery says should have done more to warn buyers about the fakes.
"Britto was negligent," says Michael Lowden, the lawyer representing Ryan Mack, owner of Griffin Galleries. "That's the heart of the case."
A Britto spokeswoman calls the suit "preposterous" and says Britto was a victim too. "We sympathize with Mr. Mack's frustration... [but] the answer is not to file a baseless lawsuit against innocent victims," Jessica De Velasco says.
Here's the backstory: In June 2009, Mack began buying Brittos from a husband-and-wife team of dealers in Coral Gables named Les Roberts and Silvia Castro. Mack says he bought more than 40 Brittos and resold dozens.
But in December that year, his biggest client called with disturbing news: He'd learned all the Brittos he'd bought through Mack were fake.
What's worse, Mack says he ended up in a maze of confusion when trying to resolve the complaint with Britto. Roberts muddied the water with fake emails and bogus authentication certificates, he says, but Britto also refused to clear things up.
Only in February 2010 -- when Britto filed his own suit against Roberts and Castro -- did Mack learn that Britto also believed the Gables dealer was selling phony pieces. That suit made it clear that Britto had a "relationship" with Roberts and Castro, Mack's suit says, and that the artist "knew or should have known of the fraudulent scheme."
Roberts, for his part, disputes nearly that whole story. While he acknowledges selling some fake Brittos to Mack, he says the number was well under 40 pieces. What's more, he says he paid back the gallery as soon as he learned the pieces were fake by giving Mack other artwork of the same value. Roberts later settled out of court with Britto, closed his gallery, and entered bankruptcy protection.
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"He got a 100 percent refund," Roberts tells Riptide. "I don't want to see this guy take advantage of Britto. He's after his money completely."
But Lowden says Griffin is still stuck with more than 40 fake Brittos, is out upward of $500,000 and just wants his fair compensation.
"He's not selling the fakes, obviously," Lowden says, "and he's still got to deal with the customers who bought these works."