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Jasper Johns’ seminal “Flag” painting sold for $36 million on Tuesday, November 11, at Sotheby’s Contemporary and Postwar Art sale in New York. The work, which carried a presale estimate of $15 million to $20 million, eclipsed the artist’s $28.6 million auction record, which was set by a different “Flag” painting at Christie’s in May 2010. The iconic encaustic was offered by Johns’ former studio assistant Mark Lancaster, who acquired the work directly from the artist in 1983, the year it was made.  

The Sotheby’s sale was anchored by the collection of Pierre Schlumberger, an aristocratic French oil-industry tycoon, and his beautiful Portuguese wife, São. Two of the most visionary collectors of the twentieth century, the Schlumbergers’ collection comprised over ninety modern and contemporary masterworks.

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In the spring of 2010, a Queens foundry owner offered to sell a bronze sculpture of a U.S. flag to an art collector. The creator, the foundry owner said, was American contemporary artist Jasper Johns, and the price was around $10 million.

On Thursday, the foundry owner, Brian Ramnarine, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in federal court in Manhattan after pleading guilty in January to three counts of wire fraud, including one for making an unauthorized copy of the sculpture, named “Flag,” and creating false documents purporting that it was a rare gift from Mr. Johns.

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Sotheby’s has announced that it will be selling Jasper Johns’s "Flag" (1983) during the November 11 Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York. This particular example of "Flag," which is relatively small at approximately 11 x 17 inches and done in encaustic on silk and collaged onto canvas, carries a price estimate of  $15 million to $20 million. (or about $1 million a square inch.) Before the sale, it will go on something of a grand tour, being showcased to collectors in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and London.

In 2010, Christie’s sold a larger version of a Johns flags, nearly 17 x 26 inches, which was also painted much early, circa 1960-1966, for a record price of $28.6 million.

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The American contemporary artist, Jasper Johns, testified in a Manhattan federal court on Thursday, January 23, saying that he never authorized foundry owner, Brian Ramnarine, to make a bronze copy of his Sculptmetal painting, ‘Flag.’ Johns had given Ramnarine a mold of the work in 1990 with instructions to make a single wax cast mold.

Prosecutors are trying to prove that Ramnarine, owner of the Empire Bronze Art Foundry in Long Island City, Queens, attempted to sell an unauthorized bronze sculpture of the painting in 2010. Johns stated in court that Ramnarine had never returned the original mold to him and that somebody later showed him a flag sculpture that he had never seen before, but he believed had been made from the mold in Ramnarine’s possession.

Ramnarine attempted to seek a buyer for the alleged Johns sculpture, telling interested parties that he was willing to sell the work for $11 million. Potential buyers were suspicious of Ramnarine as Johns had made only six ‘Flag’ sculptures and had kept several in his own possession (another is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago and another was given to President John F. Kennedy by the art dealer Leo Castelli). In an attempt to quell wariness, Ramnarine would provide interested parties with a letter said to be from Johns as well as a certificate of authenticity. Johns said he had nothing to do with either document.

Ramnarine has pleaded not guilty to the charges levelled against him.        

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