How to Steal $6.5 Million in Art from Jasper Johns

New details about his sticky-fingered studio assistant have emerged.

Jasper Johns,
Jasper Johns, "Three Flags" (1958).

Jasper Johns‘s studio assistant of 27 years, James Meyer, pleaded guilty in August to having stolen 22 artworks from Johns’s Sharon, Connecticut studio and selling them for a combined $6.5 million (see “Jasper Johns’s Assistant Pleads Guilty to Stealing Paintings“). Meyer reportedly netted $3.4 million in the fraud. He’s agreed to forfeit $4 million in the settlement and will be sentenced to up to nearly four years in prison on December 10th. Meyer has refused to speak to reporters since being nabbed on the theft charges, but a feature in this week’s New York magazine has extensive new insight into the history of the case.

According to the report, Meyer sold the works through a dealer named Fred Dorfman, starting around 2005. (Dorfman’s lawyer told New York that “James Meyer defrauded many people, including Fred Dorfman,” when explaining that his client wasn’t knowingly a part of the scheme.) Despite Meyer being a more or less failed artist himself—and previously having lived on friend’s couches in New York and later in a small house in Lakewood, Connecticut—he began to exhibit increasing levels of wealth beginning in 2007: living in a much more expensive home and purchasing several new cars, motorcycles, and a sailboat. Speculating about Meyer’s motive, a friend of Johns told New York: “The assistant’s probably sitting there thinking each brushstroke is a thousand dollars.”

According to dealer Francis Naumann, who arranged for a client to buy one of the works Meyer claimed Johns had given him as a gift, friends may have alerted Johns to Meyer’s conspicuous, increased wealth but “Jasper maybe concluded he’s doing well selling his work. Because what did he know?” Meyer did show his work from time to time, but reportedly had a tendency to irk those with whom he had dealings. An unnamed art critic told New York, “Once he even gave me a work of art out of the blue […] I was so freaked out I returned it to his dealer, saying, ‘I don’t accept anything.'”

Jasper Johns's assistant James Meyer

Jasper Johns’s assistant James Meyer.
Photo: AP

A recently amended suit filed by Naumann’s client, Frank Kolodny, contends that Meyer may have stolen “nearly 50” of Johns’s works during his tenure at the studio. At the very least, Meyer hadn’t sold all of the works he took from the studio when caught. He reportedly mailed one piece back to Johns after the investigation began. However many artworks were stolen—even calling them artworks could be a misnomer as many were unfinished—they all, remarkably, came from a single drawer that Meyer was tasked with organizing during his time working in Johns’s studio, according to New York.

A busy and trusting Johns never noticed the works leaving his archive. And, at least in Naumann’s case, no one called the artist to check on a work out of respect for Meyer, who claimed he didn’t want Johns to know that he was selling the purported gifts. That is until 2012 when, according to an unnamed friend who spoke to New York, “Someone emailed an image to check against the catalogue raisonné, and it got back to Jasper.” The individual said that Johns “knew immediately it was not something he permitted. Jim [Meyer] was fired that day.”


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