Christian Rosa had a knack for charming people. As a rising art star in Los Angeles, New York City and Vienna, he got into the good graces of dealers, collectors and fellow artists, who were reportedly enamored of his loose, abstract style of work that fell into the category of “zombie formalism.” A writer in Artnet described Rosa’s art as a “lightbulb of visual pleasure turning on.”
“He was always nice to us and a good artist,” Michael Hort, a New York-based collector who bought a half-dozen or so of Rosa’s pieces, told The Post. “Way before he got in trouble … he was extremely friendly and generous. We liked his work and when we like an artist’s work we buy it.”
Among his boosters, reportedly, was Raymond Pettibon, famous for having created the logo for the punk band Black Flag and record cover illustrations for groups like Sonic Youth and Foo Fighters. Pettibon’s coveted canvases now sell for as much as $1.2 million through top dealer David Zwirner.
“There’s a lot of Instagram evidence that they were friends and that [Pettibon] was [Rosa’s] mentor,” Joseph Ian Henrikson, founder of Manhattan’s Anonymous Gallery, told Vanity Fair.
At a show at The Hole gallery in Manhattan, the two artists painted one another’s portrait. They were known to gamble together at the dog track and swap their art.
Pettibon and Rosa, now 39, were sufficiently tight that on Sept. 17, 2019, the former tweeted gratitude to Rosa and another LA-based artist for convening with him: “Thank you Christian Rosa and Henry Taylor for coming by. Great artists and kind, genuine people. You made my day.”
Little did Pettibon, now 64, know, though, that his pal Rosa was in the midst of perpetrating a nervy, high-flying fraud against him.
But two years later, on Oct. 14, 2021, Pettibon retweeted something else about his former mentee: “The artist Christian Rosa was charged with selling forgeries of Raymond Pettibon’s work.”
According to an indictment issued by United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Christian Rosa Weinberger, aka Christian Rosa, engaged in a “scheme to sell forged Raymond Pettibon artworks.” The works in question are based on Pettibon’s highly regarded “Wave Series” of paintings, depicting gigantic curls of water, sometimes engulfing surfers, with pithy text — “Are your motives pure?” one asks.
The alleged criminal activity — described in the indictment as “a scheme to defraud potential art buyers” — is said to have run from 2017 until 2020. As outlined in the court documents, around 2018, an unnamed collector arranged Rosa’s sale of two works to a third party, who paid six figures via wire transfer. The works came complete with bogus certificates of authenticity.
Two more forged paintings were then sold to the collector. An art insider in LA expressed surprise to The Post that Rosa was able to convincingly copy Pettibon’s work.
But Hort, who, in addition to owning work by Rosa, has some 45 Pettibon pieces, found it more believable. “Pettibon is easy to knock off,” said Hort, co-founder of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation. “They’re easy to replicate. They are not that complicated, though you keep going back and finding new things to look at.”
In a possibly unrelated event, professional gambler Rick Salomon had a Pettibon pulled from auction in 2020.
“Someone sold me [a Pettibon] painting. I traded a real, smaller Pettibon for it plus cash. It was an upgrade, I thought. Then I decided I didn’t love it … [and] was going to put it in auction,” Salomon told The Post via text. “The seller said they were going to sue me [for auctioning it]. I never signed a piece of paper saying I couldn’t sell or put [it] in auction.
“So I thought this was weird, my friend threatening to sue me. I … put it in auction. My understanding is that Pettibon called the auction house and said it’s fake.”
Quoted in the indictment is a “co-conspirator” of Rosa’s, who wondered why it was taking so long for a deal to be consummated.
Rosa explained the need to find a buyer who would agree to hold onto the work and not risk exposing its lack of authenticity through the scrutiny of auction house specialists. “I am not trying to get busted,” he replied to the person via text. “So that’s why it’s takeing [sic] so long.”
According to the indictment, Rosa spent proceeds from the second deal “to make the down payment and subsequent mortgage payments on a residence in California.” On March 9, 2020, the NW Riverside News reported that Rosa and fashion model Helena Severin had purchased a five-bedroom house in Riverside, Calif., for $1.135 million.
On Jan. 29, 2021, Artnet broke news that a Pettibon being shopped to art advisors on the secondary market was raising suspicions. Dealers were reportedly made uneasy by irregularities in the work — what Artnet described as “seemingly strange yellow-greens blended into Pettibon’s normal cobalt blues,” misplacement of text and a too-careful signature.
The article referred to “multiple sources” who maintained that Rosa purloined an unfinished work from Pettibon’s studio, “allegedly finished the work” and “consigned it to the secondary market as the owner, as if it were a genuine item.”
Rosa reacted to the news by messaging his co-conspirator: “The secret is out.”
A couple days later, according to the indictment, Rosa emailed Pettibon and said that the work was an “overpainted print.”
Weeks after the Artnet exposure, Rosa fled the United States. A few months later, the Riverside home he shared with Severin was sold. The indictment alleges that an attempt was made to “transfer the funds abroad.”
Vanity Fair reported Rosa calling a friend during this time and describing himself as “America’s most wanted.” The artist’s undoing may have come when Severin posted an Instagram picture that showed a bottle of Mil Fontes water, a local brand that revealed her location on the Alentejo coast in Portugal.
Earlier this month, Rosa was arrested in Portugal and extradited to the US.
Art world insiders point out that Rosa enjoyed a rapid, if reckless, rise, which made his landing particularly hard to handle — and may have contributed to him taking desperate measures.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, he has said that he and his family later moved to Vienna “because Brazil was so dangerous.” Rosa showed up in Los Angeles around 2010. One early benefactor, Stefan Simchowitz, a collector and gallerist in LA, liked Rosa’s art enough that, at that time, he rented an apartment for Rosa and bought him art supplies in exchange for work.
“I happened to be having dinner with a bunch of friends, including Hugh Grant,” Simchowitz told The Post. “[Rosa] came, was charming and told me he was broke.”
According to Simchowitz, the friendship ended badly, with Rosa failing to deliver on the promised art, even as his gallery shows piled up and prices increased.
“All [Christian] did was take advantage of people,” claimed Simchowitz who said he got into a shoving match with Rosa while being filmed for a German documentary. “There is an idea that artists are always the victims but there are circumstances where artists do not fulfill their obligations. Artists can be very unethical. They can do crazy things and, under the protection of being artists, take unethical stands. Christian was highly unethical. I had to threaten him with litigation. I was able to recover a fraction of the paintings I paid for.”
Rosa wound up being sued by another LA collector over undelivered art that is described in the legal complaint as “six works … estimated to be in excess of $400,000” that had been promised in exchange for “use or occupancy of plaintiff’s art studio.”
According to a knowledgeable source: “We had to seize Christian’s Ferrari through a court order. It was in a garage with a [large] photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger oiled down during his body-building days.”
That lawsuit was filed in 2014 and the following year, according to Vanity Fair, Rosa “closed on a new 11,000-square-foot studio space” in downtown LA. A-listers like Jay-Z and Leonardo DiCaprio were collecting his work. In 2014, a piece of his fetched $209,000 at Christies. Hort believes Rosa “lived at that level” — that of an artist whose work routinely sells in the six figures
“Then the market crashed,” Hort added. Rosa’s works were going for more like $30,000. “He got stuck. He got stupid.”
Still, considering Rosa’s talents, Simchowitz said: “How this guy f—–d it up is beyond imagination.”