Whitehot Magazine

Artist Alfredo Martinez - In Memoriam: A Tale of Art Theft and Fake Basquiats by Anthony Haden-Guest

One of Alfredo Martinez's Fake Basquiat drawings


By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST - August 30th, 2023

The bravura of Alfredo Martinez was so compelling, whether he was on an upwards swing or a down one, that I couldn’t always focus on the details of whatever specific story or scheme he might be presenting but this was absolutely not so with what he had to tell me late in February 2020. The tale had begun on January 15 when a thief tossed a brick through the window of AZT, a wellness center in Alphabet City, on New York’s Lower East Side, and vamoosed with three paintings by the highly regarded Street artist, Phase 2.

Then on February 6 Alfredo had been telephoned by a man he got to know in the Brooklyn pen. The fellow said he had the three Phase 2s but that the NYPD were a heavy presence in the nabe, pressuring all likely suspects, so could Alfredo fix it both to take the art off his hands and get some moolah into them?

Well, yes. Alfredo was now on friendly terms with Bob Whitman, the FBI agent who had arrested him, who had since retired, and he duly instructed him how to orchestrate the hand-over. Alfredo set it up, but wanted to see that it got some media attention, and so it was that I, who had known him from way back, was driven by Quentin Pistol, who was making a documentary about Alfredo co-directed and produced by artist Julia Morrison, to the Jersey City apartment that Alfredo shared with his brother and sister. There I learned that the paintings were to be brought to him, and that he was to pay $7,500, a sum which he was getting from the owner of the robbed wellness center, Mike Sais. And that I was to be there, albeit invisibly, for the hand-over.

This would generate a story I did for the Daily Beast about how the giddy rise of Street art values, in the wake of the trajectory of the careers of, say, Banksy, Stik, Invader and, posthumously, Richard Hambleton, had made it a juicily reachable target for theft. But that lay ahead. Right now we were awaiting the crucial calls while Alfredo sat at a video game, canceling endless zombies. “I’m waiting for the cash. Which I can’t touch a dime of,” he mourned to one non-crucial caller.

Verso of the fake Basquiat drawing by Alfredo Martinez


The first instalment of cash arrived in the early afternoon. $2,500. “I had to borrow it,” Mike Sais of AZT told me. “That was okay with law enforcement?” I asked. They had already made an arrest, Sais told me. So now how he recuperated his art was up to him.

The next call was at 3:30 and indicated that a painting was on its way. Pistol and I went into hiding in a bedroom. We would learn that a young woman had arrived and given Sais “proof of life”, a turn of phrase much used in murky art transactions, proving actual possession of the work. She got the cash and Sais got the first of the Phase 2s.

Only Alfredo was in the room when Pistol and I were allowed back. Another wait, a nother call. “They’re coming back with the rest of the money,” Martinez said.

Back into the bedroom. One and a half hours later $5,000. We saw it parked on the desk when we were let out.

Another call, back into the bedroom with us. The smoothness of the action had persuaded the robber that Alfredo could be trusted and both paintings were delivered. Our door was opened and we watched Mike Sais gleefully unfurling the last two Phase 2s. He would later tell me that all three paintings were to be included in the Phase 2 retrospective at the ACA Gallery, priced at $75,000 apiece. Not yet up there with Basquiat or Hambleton but more than okay.
Alfredo let us know that we shouldn’t expect any further such adventures to involve him though. “It wasn’t just Basquiats I forged but Keith Harings too. Jail was a publicity stunt. But I was tired of being a forger and decided it’s either time to cut bait or fish.”

His takeway on the experience?

“I’m not a fence,” he told me. “Nobody with hot art should expect me to pick up that phone again.” WM



Anthony Haden-Guest


Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.




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