Art dealer Mary Boone is sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for tax fraud

“I stand before you today saddened, humbled and heartbroken,” Boone told Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, adding, “I beg that you give me a second chance.”

Mary Boone, a veteran New York gallerist once lauded as the “Queen of the Art Scene,” pleaded for leniency Thursday. But a federal judge sentenced her to 2 1/2 years in prison for offenses connected to a tax fraud that prosecutors said had cost the government $3 million in revenue.
“I stand before you today saddened, humbled and heartbroken,” Boone told Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, adding, “I beg that you give me a second chance.”

But after a brief recess, Hellerstein delivered his sentence, asserting that the magnitude of her crimes and their “long and studied nature” required a prison term.

“This is a serious offense; all must pay their taxes,” he said.

Boone, wearing a dark blue suit, leaned forward at the pronouncement, resting her face in her hands. She was ordered to surrender in May to begin serving her sentence.

For more than 40 years Boone, 67, has been a fixture in the ever-changing art world, rising from secretary to gallery owner, showing the work of artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, sometimes courting controversy and occasionally becoming embroiled in high-profile disputes. She is one of the most prominent art world figures to face prison since 2002, when the former chairman of Sotheby’s, A. Alfred Taubman, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and fined $7.5 million for leading a price-fixing scheme with Christie’s that swindled customers out of more than $100 million.

Prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office had asked that Boone be sentenced to as much as three years in prison for the crimes she had pleaded guilty to — two counts of filing false tax returns. They said Boone had reported false business losses, used business funds to pay for more than $1.6 million in personal expenses, like renovations to her home, and then falsely claimed those personal expenses as business deductions.

But her lawyers had asked for a sentence of home confinement, probation and community service. They also submitted more than 100 letters attesting to her good works from friends, artists and collectors including Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, whom she once represented.

Boone was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, and had a childhood that her lawyers described as “marked by tragedy and poverty.” Her father died at an early age, they said, and her mother struggled daily to survive. But after opening her own gallery in 1977 in New York City, she quickly gained attention while selling works by Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Ross Bleckner. In 1982, when she was 30, New York magazine published a story about her titled, “The New Queen of the Art Scene.”

Her gallery was considered by many to be at, or near, the white hot center of the ‘80s art boom. The works she displayed there, critic Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, were “seen as slanting heavily toward an overtly macho form of Neo-Expressionist painting.”

Boone moved her gallery from SoHo to midtown Manhattan in 1996 and later opened a space in Chelsea. She continued to exhibit the work of younger painters and organize shows that drew positive reviews.

She also continued to be cited in headlines. In 1999, Boone was arrested after displaying a handmade shotgun by artist Tom Sachs and offering live 9-millimeter cartridges as souvenirs. She spent a night in jail, and told reporters her arrest was “an outrageous attack” on artists’ rights. The charges against her were eventually dropped.

In 2016, actor Alec Baldwin sued Boone, saying she had defrauded him by promising him one painting by Bleckner, but then providing another, similar Bleckner painting with the same name. Baldwin’s case was eventually settled with Boone paying him what was described only as “a seven-figure sum.”

In the tax case, Boone was charged with filing false returns for herself and her gallery for the year 2011. Federal authorities said she had engaged in similar schemes the two previous years.

Boone’s lawyers had argued against prison time, writing to the court that her troubled childhood led to mental health issues, a suicide attempt and drug and alcohol abuse. The poverty of her early life, they said, had left her fearful that, despite her success, she would end up destitute and dependent upon others.

In court Thursday, one of Boone’s lawyers, Robert Fink, told the judge that she committed her crimes “not because she was greedy, but because she was frightened.”

But Hellerstein seemed skeptical, at one point asking how it would be fair for him to sentence someone to prison for narcotics while allowing Boone to remain free.

Prosecutors had argued in a memo to the court last month that Boone did not deserve leniency. They cited the many personal expenses Boone had falsely claimed as business deductions, including $793,003 used to remodel her Manhattan apartment, beauty salon purchases of $24,380, nearly $14,000 on products from Hermès and more than $5,000 on items from Louis Vuitton.

On Thursday one of the prosecutors, Olga Zverovich, told Hellerstein that there was no excuse for Boone’s conduct, adding, “It’s brazen, it’s deliberate, it’s extensive and it’s clear that it was motivated by greed.”

It is now unclear what will happen to the gallery business. Her lawyers had told the judge that Boone’s presence was “indispensable” to the business and to “the numerous employees, artists, vendors and others that it supports.”
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