By Tom Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former assistant to American artist Jasper Johns was sentenced to 1-1/2 years in prison on Thursday for scheming to sell 22 unfinished works that he stole from his boss' studio.

James Meyer, 53, was also ordered by U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken in Manhattan to forfeit and pay restitution totaling more than $17 million after pleading guilty last year to unlawfully transporting art works stolen from Johns.

Prosecutors in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office in Manhattan had sought up to 46 months in prison for Meyer, whose case highlighted some of the issues of trust at the center of the world of high-priced contemporary art.

Johns, 84, is best known for sculptures and paintings of the American flag, including one that sold at auction in November for a record $36 million.

Prosecutors say from 2006 to 2012, Meyer removed 22 works of art that Johns had not yet completed from his Connecticut studio and brought them to a Manhattan art gallery, where they were sold for about $6.5 million.

Johns had asked Meyer to destroy some of the art works and had not personally authorized the sale of any of the works.

Meyer, who had been the artist's studio assistant for over 25 years, claimed Johns had given him the art as a gift, and forged notarized certifications and inventory numbers for the artwork to conceal the fraud, prosecutors said.

Choking back tears as he read a prepared statement in court before his sentencing, Meyer said he felt "the deepest remorse for all the damage" he had done.

"I am truly devastated that I destroyed the close relationship that I had with the man who was my mentor, employer and friend since I was 21-years-old," he said.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)