At 81 years old, Annina Nosei is considered one of the foremost experts on the art of contemporary American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Her eponymous New York gallery was the first to exhibit the artist; its basement served as Basquiat’s studio for many years. In that time, the gallerist cultivated a comprehensive fluency in what she calls “the language” of Basquiat’s style. “I see it like a signature, like you recognize someone’s handwriting,” she says, through a strident Roman accent. “The true language cannot be faked.”
Nosei fields dozens of letters and calls a month from gallerists and art buyers around the world inquiring into the authenticity of purported Basquiat paintings. In April of 2018, she received one such inquiry from a gallery in South Florida. The gallery’s owner was preparing to pay $990,000 for a pair of Basquiats offered by a private seller in California. Upon examination of the works, Nosei immediately determined them to be fraudulent.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, private art collectors, auctioneers, and even a few pawnbrokers were discovering various acquired works of art from shadowy West Coast private dealers were all similarly fraudulent. These pieces were purported to be not just by Basquiat, but by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, and other iconic American pop art painters.
The names under which these counterfeits were sold, law enforcement soon learned, were all identities assumed by one man: Philip Righter, 44, of West Hollywood. Righter would eventually plead guilty to three felony charges related to the forgeries and be sentenced to five years in prison.
The web of deception Righter spun was cast wide and stretched across decades, having ensnared not just unsuspecting art collectors but friends and colleagues, in particular a young aspiring actor who would become his unwitting partner in crime. This is a story of a fabulist of the highest order, an Icarian tragedy about a man who traded away substantial professional achievements for a figment of wealth and status. And in that sense, it’s perhaps a tale emblematic of Hollywood’s core axiom: Fake it ’til you make it. Or at least until the law catches up with you.
Until recently, 29-year-old Kevin Benoit considered Righter to be his best friend. But to understand how that friendship broke down and how Benoit himself became implicated in a $6 million art-fraud scheme, one must understand the circumstances of his arrival in Los Angeles and his place in West Hollywood’s social ecosystem.
The young Canadian, with classic Clark Kent-ish good looks, enjoyed some success as an actor and television host in his hometown of Montreal. But like so much young talent from around the world, he dreamed of bona fide Hollywood stardom, and so, at age 25, moved to Los Angeles. But as it is for so many newly arrived actors, the transition was fraught.
“My first year in L.A., I wanted to go home,” he says, speaking through a lilting Québécois accent. “I had a husband who loved me, but basically no friends.” Benoit identifies as gay, but his experience navigating WeHo’s boisterous social scene was alienating. “West Hollywood can be very catty,” he says. “The men are competitive.”
So Benoit was excited when, in 2015, a friend offered to introduce him to a thirtysomething man-about-town described as knowing everyone worth knowing in West Hollywood. That man was Philip Righter. Soon, the two were texting. The conversation was light, pleasant, and Righter seemed eager to meet. “We set up plans to have dinner,” Benoit says. But on the day of their intended first meeting, Righter went missing. Benoit sent text after text, all unanswered. “It was very strange,” he says. “I was worried.” Benoit concluded that Righter had simply flaked and consigned the ordeal to yet another foiled attempt at making a friend in L.A. But later that night, Benoit received a text from Righter: “I’m so, so sorry, I got into a huge car crash with my Porsche, totaled it, I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
In hindsight, Benoit supposes he should have seen Righter’s unexplained disappearance and grandiose excuse as a sign of things to come but felt he was in no position to decline friendly overtures from anyone. “I was very lonely,” he says.
A few days later, Benoit invited Righter to his apartment. It was there that a real connection sparked. “We really clicked,” Benoit recalls. “He was just very nice, which was so different from the typical West Hollywood gay guys I knew. He asked questions about my life, my family, my career. He seemed genuinely interested.” Righter talked about himself, too. When he learned Benoit was an actor, he revealed himself to be a film and television producer. “He said, ‘I could help you. I’ve won an Emmy, I’ve won an Oscar, I know all these people,’” Benoit says. “It was refreshing to meet someone a bit older who seemed like he knew his shit and wanted to help.” Over the next few months, the pair would meet and run lines ahead of Benoit’s auditions. Righter offered to pitch Benoit for roles in projects produced by friends. “He presents as very well-connected,” Benoit says.
Indeed, images of Righter from that time show all the trappings of a typical Hollywood player. He was often photographed in front of step-and-repeats, bedecked in designer clothing and sporting a moppish hairdo that would not be out of place in a K-pop boy band. His face bears all the ostensible markers of Southern Californian affluence: injection-enhanced lips, skin stretched tight over strategic deposits of Botox.
To Benoit, Righter looked and acted the part of a legitimate industry impresario—the would-be David Geffen to his Brad Pitt. He didn’t think twice about asking him for financial advice. As a Canadian, Benoit had no credit history in the U.S. and consequently couldn’t qualify for most credit cards. Righter hatched a plan: Benoit would obtain one of the few cards he could with a very low limit. “No more than $300 to start,” Benoit recalls. Righter thereafter used the card for his own personal shopping and reimbursed Benoit for the full balance. “He always paid me in full, on time, every month.”
The scheme worked. From 2015 to 2018, Righter’s regular use and full payment of Benoit’s cards built him an extremely favorable credit rating. Before long, Benoit qualified for an American Express Platinum card with no limit. He added Righter as an authorized user. By then, Righter was regularly running up balances of $18,000, Benoit says.
Righter helped Benoit in other ways, too. When the pair hung out at bars around West Hollywood, it was Righter who almost always picked up the bill. When Benoit became exhausted by the hustle of acting and decided to sit for his real-estate license examination, Righter offered his spacious condominium as a study space. And by virtue of Righter’s “connections” in Hollywood, there were endless invitations to glamorous industry events. “I told him I loved Schitt’s Creek,” Benoit says. “Righter got us tickets to a panel with all the actors.”
With Righter a seemingly inexhaustible font of generosity, the friendship took on an asymmetry that left Benoit feeling indebted—and less skeptical. So when Righter began to ask him to perform small favors, the requests seemed innocuous. He might ask Benoit to drop off a package or two at FedEx; little did Benoit know that the contents were fake Warhols.
But the requests became steadily more baroque. Righter asked Benoit to hold onto money for him; he said the funds were residuals from his award-winning portfolio of films and television shows, but because he was embroiled in a lawsuit with a former business partner, he feared any wire transfers into his own bank accounts would be immediately frozen. Benoit provided the information needed to wire several payments ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars into his bank account. Benoit withdrew the funds in cash and gave them to Righter. “I had no reason to believe he was lying to me about what the money was for,” Benoit says. “The first time I came to his apartment, he showed me his Oscar.”
What Benoit didn’t know is that Righter was never the recipient of an Academy or Emmy award for producing. There is no record of his ever being nominated for either, individually or as part of a team. In fact, he had no more influence or entrée in Hollywood than did Benoit. This was neither the first nor the last lie Righter would tell him. Righter’s flair for the fantastical was the foundation of their friendship—and the foundation of Righter’s very being. He was a practiced hand at bending the truth. He had been doing it for much of his life.
Philip Bennett Righter was born in Elgin, Illinois, in 1976. His father, Samuel Righter, was a salesman; his mother, Sara McNevins English, a paralegal. They divorced when Righter was six years old. By Righter’s own account, his upbringing was transient. He spent his childhood in Coral Gables, Florida, and his teenage years near Greenville, South Carolina, with his mother’s family. In an email sent from federal prison, Righter conjures images of a blissful, all-American adolescence. “I liked school, and it was pretty easy for me,” he writes, adding that he was president of his senior class and coeditor of the school newspaper. “I think my GPA was around 4.1.”
Zach Harvey was two years behind Righter at Riverside High School in Greer, South Carolina. His recollections suggest a male version of Tracy Flick in the 1999 film Election. Swap Flick’s golden ringlets for a neat swath of auburn bangs, her sweater set for slacks, and you have a portrait of the cherubic, 17-year-old Righter—a go-getter whose senior yearbook photo is annotated with extracurricular activities. Harvey confirms Righter’s role as both class president and coeditor of the newspaper and recalls that Righter sometimes carried a briefcase in lieu of a backpack. “He seemed like he was more concerned with what was going to happen after high school,” Harvey says. “No sports, not at the cool table at lunch, very businesslike. He always seemed like he was on his way to a meeting.”
Righter graduated from Riverside in 1995 and enrolled at Furman University in Greenville. In 1996, he transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He would eventually earn a degree from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) in 1999, according to the university’s registrar. “When you transfer into Cornell, it’s weird,” says a classmate who does not wish to be named. As another sophomore-year transfer into the ILR program, she recalls, “People already have their friends. The transfers all hung out together.”
She remembers Righter regaling their cohort with details of an upbringing of significant privilege. He claimed his mother was an accomplished attorney, part of a South Carolinian political dynasty. So formal were the household rules of his childhood that he was forbidden from appearing in front of his parents in pajamas. The family’s driveway, he said, stayed snow-free in winter, thanks to subterranean heaters. Righter now describes his upbringing as “solid middle class.” The house he grew up in on Fawnbrook Drive in Greer is a tidy, pleasant-looking but ultimately modest three-bedroom home of white clapboard. Its most recent real-estate listing mentions nothing about heated driveways. “Righter was very much about pushing his credentials,” another classmate who lived in Righter’s sophomore-year dormitory recalls, “letting people know that he was important and from an important family.”
The patriarch of this family was supposedly the then senior United States senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond—the Dixiecrat and social conservative infamous for his vocal opposition to the civil rights movement. (Emails to Thurmond’s two surviving sons went unanswered; but public records of Righter’s extended family reveal no discernible relation between his mother, her parents, and any of Thurmond’s siblings.) This purported connection to the senator was Righter’s calling card during his days at Cornell. Every member of the university’s Class of 1999 contacted for this story remembers Righter as Thurmond’s grandnephew. “I had no reason not to believe him,” Righter’s dormmate says, noting that Righter was exceptionally detailed in his illustrations of life among the Thurmond clan. He knew the names and ages of the senator’s children and claimed to be a regular tennis partner of Paul Thurmond, the senator’s youngest son. He often critiqued Paul’s forehand. Fabricating a connection to one of the Senate’s conservative stalwarts made sense for Righter’s career goals. “He had aspirations in Republican politics,” his dormmate says. In keeping with his assumed brand of Southern gentility, Righter was determined to join the ranks of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Formed at the University of Alabama in 1856, SAE is the only national fraternity founded in the antebellum South. Righter pledged and was admitted in his junior year. “He wanted people to know he was Strom Thurmond’s nephew and that he came from this very privileged, well-to-do, aristocratic Southern family,” a fellow SAE brother recalls. “I think that kind of got him into the house.”
At Cornell, Righter wielded the same knack for relentlessly manifesting his ambitions as he did in high school. But the persona he projected—that of a scion of conservative, Southern aristocracy, displaying all the plumage of preppy, Ivy League heteronormativity—contradicted a secreted-away part of himself. Though he now publicly identifies as gay, Righter did not advertise his sexuality in college. “Being gay in the ’90s at Cornell, it wasn’t an option,” recalls another classmate, who also now openly identifies as a gay man. “Homosexuality was something you might’ve seen on Christopher Street in the West Village, but not so much in Ithaca.”
Others say Righter’s sexuality was an open secret on campus. “I had friends who were out who knew that side of Righter,” his dormmate says. “He had a very complicated situation. He sort of lived a double life, with his aspirations and how he saw himself as a young Republican on one side.” Righter was known for attaching himself to attractive coeds. “Every time we had a party or a formal, he always had a beautiful woman on his arm,” another SAE brother recalls, a concerted appeal to a campus overwhelmingly dominated by straight men. “At that time, I’d say Greek life and the conservative side of campus were not hospitable to homosexuality,” Righter’s dormmate contends. Righter was regularly and conspicuously absent from campus for stretches of time. “He would be picked up in the fraternity driveway and disappear for a few days,” a third SAE brother recalls. “The presumption was that he was going to New York City to meet men.”
In this context, Righter’s later decampment to the West Coast made sense. “When we were graduating and he told me he wanted to move to Los Angeles, I remember thinking that this was his out,” Righter’s dormmate says. “Being in a new environment and perhaps living a little more freely, more true to who he really was.”
Righter’s life in Los Angeles would indeed be freer and less inhibited. But truth remained an elusive element in the narrative he would write for himself here as well. At Cornell, he cultivated the theory of a lie; in Los Angeles, he put it into practice. “Our own Cornell Cunanan,” a former SAE brother says.
If Righter’s lies were pearls, at their center was always a small, gritty silica of truth. He indeed enjoyed some success in the entertainment industry, though not in the manner he described to Benoit. Upon graduating from Cornell, he worked as a consultant in sourcing and procurement in Newport Beach and leveraged his expertise to land a job with the Walt Disney Company in Burbank as a purchasing manager, thus establishing a toehold in the entertainment industry. From there, he sought a life outside of work where glamour and status were more freely exchanged.
“In my [twenties], there were parties in Malibu at Sandy Gallin’s,” Righter writes from prison, referring to the late, openly gay manager whose clients included Cher, Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, and Mariah Carey. In 2005, after a year at Disney, Righter says, he was hired as a manager of sourcing at
NBCUniversal and that, by the time he departed the company in 2006, he held the title of vice president. A representative for NBCUniversal, speaking on background, confirmed Righter’s term of employment and promotions. (Representatives of the Walt Disney Company would not confirm Righter’s employment; a background check confirmed he held positions at both companies.)
“I wasn’t necessarily attracted to the entertainment business, but I did want to work for blue-chip companies,” Righter writes of his time at Disney and NBCUniversal. His next move would suggest the opposite, however, and mark the moment at which his drive for success—nurtured all those years ago at Riverside High—went off the rails.
Shortly before leaving NBCUniversal, Righter launched Righter Holdings LLC, an umbrella corporation consisting of several entities, including the Righter Corp., Righter Development Corp., the Righter Foundation, Righter Consulting Group, Righter Design Firm, and Righter Art Collection Inc. According to friends, Righter says he got these multiple businesses off the ground, thanks to injections of cash from a family fortune. Righter claimed to be the great-great-grandson of John Righter of Selchow & Righter, an early-twentieth-century board-game manufacturer best known for Parcheesi and Scrabble. In 2013, an individual with the username “Right591” edited the Wikipedia page for Selchow & Righter, asserting that “the trademark for ‘Righter’ in the commercial use of games and entertainment remains under the control of the Righter family; specifically, Philip Righter.” The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has no record for a live trademark in the Righter name owned by anyone, let alone Philip Righter. “Right591” is also the username associated with his Twitter account.
Regardless of its origins or financing, it’s unclear what Righter Holdings professed to be. In 2016, Righter’s name was attached to the The Good Waiter—a 16-minute short with a budget of $15,000 described by one reviewer as a “bland but serviceable student film.” There is no record of Righter’s involvement with any other film or television projects.
As much as he claimed to hate pencil pushing, in February of 2016, Philip Righter did his own taxes. According to prosecutors, it was then that he falsified an amended federal tax return, declaring that several pieces of art he owned were stolen—a loss of $2,575,000, he claimed.
That same month, prosecutors alleged, Righter submitted counterfeit works of Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein, along with fraudulent provenance documents, to an online lending company. (Authorities say he purchased the forged works from auction sites like eBay.) Righter claimed that the Lichtenstein, a forgery of Seductive Girl (Study), was purchased for $103,200. The lender agreed to provide a loan of $5,000, with the Haring work as collateral. Righter later defaulted on the loan, and the lender sold the Haring for $50,000. When the buyer had the piece authenticated and it was determined to be fake, the auction house lost $35,341 on the transaction.
In July 2016, prosecutors alleged Righter ordered embossers designed to replicate the stamps issued by the authentication committees of Basquiat and Haring. The stamps were applied to provenance documents of Righter’s own making. In August, Righter again submitted the fake Seductive Girl (Study), this time as collateral for a $270,000 loan; a representative contacted an auction house listed on the provenance document and, learning that it was illegitimate, denied Righter’s application.
Produced by authentication committees or boards associated with the estates of artists, provenance documents assert the authenticity of a work of art. These committees often operate within foundations devoted to the preservation of a given artist’s work and are usually tasked with maintaining the catalogue raisonné—a comprehensive index of known works by the artist. Catalogues are supplemented by chain-of-title records that track the sequence of transfers of ownership. In this way, authentication committees are generally the first line of defense against art fraud: a genuine Basquiat cannot exist in two places at once, with two different owners. Righter understood that producing convincing provenance documents would be the key to any successful sale of counterfeit art.
“I never sat down and said, ‘You know, I think I’ll just create some documents and try to sell them,’” he writes from prison. “At first, I bought art that I believed to be real, and I was frustrated that a lack of pedigree affected its value. Over time, admittedly, this became an altogether fraud, and I don’t deny that. And a small part of me found a challenge and artistry in a higher-skill crime.”
Righter researched the estates of the artists, going so far as to adopt the name and signature of Gerard Basquiat, the father of Jean-Michel and a prior administrator of his estate, on fraudulent provenance documents. On August 15, 2016, an FBI agent, accompanied by a detective from the Los Angeles Police Department, questioned Righter about a piece he attempted to sell to a Miami gallery, purportedly by Haring. Righter was let off with a warning.
But federal prosecutors say he was undeterred. In late 2016, doing business as “Kevin Benoit,” prosecutors in Florida alleged Righter sold five pieces to a private collector identified in court documents as “H.H.” Four were accompanied by fraudulent provenance documents, and were identified as Dancer, Baseball, Federal Reserve, and Eggs, all by Basquiat. The fifth was attributed to Basquiat but did not come with any certification. H.H. wired $196,000 to Benoit’s account. Believing the funds to be Righter’s residuals, Benoit gave them to his friend.
In August of 2017, Righter approached a representative for an online art brokerage, once again doing business as Kevin Benoit. Prosecutors alleged Righter sold the brokerage what he claimed was a 1983 painting by Basquiat with the word “SAMO” scrawled across the canvas. The brokerage issued a payment of $37,970 into the bank account of the real Kevin Benoit. Once again, he withdrew the funds and gave them to Righter.
It was not until almost two years after first meeting Righter that Benoit would learn how his friend stole and exploited his identity for the purpose of selling counterfeit art.
In June of 2018, Benoit was spending a few days on the other side of the country, enjoying New York City’s Pride weekend. “I received a call from Phil, basically telling me that the FBI had raided his place,” Benoit says. “I was so shocked. At the time, I could really not imagine a possible reason why the FBI would be interested in Phil.”
A few days later, after Benoit returned to Los Angeles, Special Agent Elisabeth Rivas of the FBI’s art-crime team called on him at home. It was not an entirely unexpected visit. Benoit had a habit of leaving his car parked in the garage under Righter’s apartment building when traveling. “Righter told me the FBI asked him why my car was parked in the garage,” Benoit says. “And so I expected to maybe get a phone call.” He did not, however, expect to be seated at his kitchen table across from Rivas, with a towering stack of documents between them.
Rivas slid a document in front of Benoit. “Is this your name and signature?” she asked, indicating a line at the bottom of a very crowded, official-looking document. “That’s my name, but it’s not my signature,” Benoit replied. He scanned the page before him. It was a loan application for $30,000 from a pawnshop in Beverly Hills. He was aghast. He had never applied for a loan in the United States. And the collateral, a Basquiat, was not something he owned.
Rivas filled Benoit in on what the FBI believed Righter was guilty of: using Benoit’s name and the names of other friends and associates to profit from the sale and collateralization of counterfeit contemporary-art masterpieces. “She told me, ‘OK, you know all those deliveries he had you make to packaging stores? That was fake art he was selling,’” Benoit says. Rivas also showed Benoit documents indicating that Righter made art sales using Benoit’s mother’s name as well as her address in Montreal.
“That’s when I really started freaking out,” Benoit recalls. A realization dawned on him—the funds Righter wired into his account weren’t TV residuals; they were profits of fraud. “She was very hard on me,” Benoit says of his conversation with Rivas. “But that’s her job. She asked me, ‘How could you think this was smart?’ Handling all that money for someone I had only known for a few years.” Benoit admits to some naïveté, “but this was my best friend, I trusted him with my life.”
Over the next few hours, Rivas expertly dissected Righter’s life of lies. She told Benoit that the FBI’s investigation concluded Righter was not, in fact, an award-winning producer. For the Hollywood events Benoit accompanied him to, Righter either bought tickets or bluffed his way past security. Rivas asked Benoit, for the sake of the investigation, to maintain ties with Righter.
“I asked if I should cancel the credit cards, and she said no,” Benoit recalls. Righter might have caught the scent of investigators on his tail. “We don’t know what he could do or where he could go,” Rivas told Benoit. “So I started playing dumb,” he says. He continued to text and chat on the phone with Righter as if their relationship was unchanged. At the FBI’s request, he even paid a visit to Righter’s apartment to surreptitiously photograph any art on the walls. Even as Benoit was cooperating with the FBI, he occasionally forgot the new nature of his relationship with Righter. “He was still so genuine and personable. I would have to remind myself of what he did.”
Benoit says he feared how his friend might react to learning he had turned informant. “Phil always said, ‘I have a black file on everyone,’” Benoit says. “He has a great memory. And now I’m going back in my mind and remembering all these times Phil bragged about having connections with the government.” Benoit says Righter specifically boasted of relationships with the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services, the agency responsible for administering Benoit’s green card. “He was convincing enough to get people to pay thousands of dollars for fake art,” he says. “If he could do that, what the fuck could he do to me?”
In December of 2018, Righter, for the first time, failed to pay off an outstanding debt on Benoit’s credit card, for $13,000, and disappeared. Righter informed Benoit that he was recently released from jail but refused to go into detail. In April, Righter again disappeared. “So I call the West Hollywood sheriff, and they tell me he’s at Twin Towers.” Benoit made an appointment to see his friend behind bars. “He doesn’t fit the profile of someone who would do well in jail,” he says.
When Benoit finally laid eyes on Righter, he was shocked. “I’d never seen him like that,” he says, describing his friend as sporting a six-day-old beard and wearing a hospital gown. “He said, ‘It’s all going to work out, Kevin. I’m not going to get into details with you.’” Righter, who had never wasted an opportunity to spin a story, was without words. “I didn’t ask for the money,” Benoit says. “It was too sad.” Benoit reached out to Righter’s father in Pennsylvania. “He said, ‘I’ll call you when he pays me the money he owes me.’”
On July 19, 2019, Philip Righter was again arrested in Los Angeles and extradited to Miami; in March of 2020, he plead guilty to two counts of felony mail fraud and aggravated identity theft arising out of his activities in Florida and to additional counts of wire fraud, identity theft, and tax fraud in California. On July 16, 2020, Righter was sentenced to five years in federal prison. He is up for parole after three.
Righter is spending his time behind bars putting his thoughts to the page, creating his own art, instead of faking it. Predictably, he is not writing a memoir, but a novelization of the events that led to his conviction. In this way, he can bend the facts of his case to his liking, buff out people he’d rather forget, and for the first time in his life perhaps literally rewrite his own history.
“If only I’d had the forethought to do this before I broke the law!” he says.