|By Jim Rutledge
NEW YORK, N.Y. — Three New York City men, including a former sidewalk city artist, were indicted by a federal grand jury last month for operating a complex and two-decade-long fine art scam involving more than 60 forged paintings of famous modernist masters.
Two of the men are brothers: Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz, 58, of Sands Point, N.Y., and Jesus Angle Bergantinos Diaz, 65, of Largo, Spain. They were arrested by agents of the FBI’s art crime squad and Spanish authorities April 21 in Spain. The third suspect, Chinese artist Pei-Shen Qian, traveled to China last year during the investigation and is in hiding, authorities say.
A fourth conspirator in the scheme, an art dealer from Queens, N.Y., Glafira Rosales, the girlfriend of the younger brother, has been working with the FBI and the IRS since soon after she was arrested last year. She pleaded guilty months ago for selling the 63 works of forged art.
Authorities say Rosales has been a key figure in the alleged conspiracy. She is awaiting sentencing after admitting to nine federal charges including money laundering, wire fraud and filing fake tax returns. As part of her plea agreement, she has agreed to amend six years of tax returns and pay interest and penalties, forfeit her Queens home, her art works and her bank accounts and pay restitution.
Investigators say she sold 40 of the counterfeit art works to New York art dealer Knoedler & Company, a venerable Upper East Side gallery that was forced to abruptly close 3 1/2 years ago after being in business for more than 165 years. The gallery had sold the fake art for a total of $40 million. An additional 23 other fakes were sold through a second Manhattan dealer, Julian Weissman, a former Knoedler employee, who has been able to stay in business as he settled various lawsuits brought by investors who purchased the fake art.
Rosales and the Bergantinos Diaz brothers earned $33.2 million selling the art, while the galleries received more than $47 million after selling the forgeries as authentic, prosecutors said.
According to the April 21 indictment, the nearly 20-year scam began in the early 1990s when the brothers discovered Qian selling his art on a city street corner and concocted a scheme to have Qian convert flea market art purchases of world-famous abstract expressionist artists into fakes.
“The (federal) charges paint a picture of perpetual lies and greed. “The defendants tricked victims into paying more than $33 million for worthless paintings which they fabricated in the names of world famous artists,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said. “The Bergantinos Diaz brothers then laundered and hid their illegal proceeds overseas. With these incidents,” Bharara added, “the defendants must now answer for their alleged roles as modern masters of forgery and deceit.”
Ann Freedman, the former president of Knoedler, and Weissman both said they were convinced the works were genuine, though they have acknowledged that Rosales did not provide them with documentation to establish the art’s provenance.
Prosecutors say that beginning in 1994, Rosales wove a story about these never-before-seen works, telling both gallery owners that the owner of the paintings had inherited the works from his father and insisted on remaining anonymous.
The FBI said unsuspected buyers paid up to $17 million for some canvases said to have been created by modernist painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. The sale of the 63 fake paintings generated almost $80 million for the two galleries. The Knoedler gallery had sold a “de Kooning” work for $4 million, a “Rothko” for $8.3 million and a “Pollock” for $17 million.
The paintings were created by the 73-year old Qian, who was paid by his co-conspirators from a few hundred dollars up to $5,000 per piece to create the 63 counterfeit masterpieces.
Qian had produced the fakes in a totally deceptive artistic flair out of his two-stall garage studio in Queens over a period of 15 years. He used an elaborate array of methods to produce the worthless art: dripping tea bags over the canvases to give them an aged appearance, exposing them to the outdoors in order to make them appear older than they were, and in some instances using heat and other weather conditions to alter the texture of the canvas or papers.
“I am as shocked as everybody, more shocked, as I am the central victim,” Freedman, the 67-year-old gallerist, told New York Magazine. She was so convinced of Rosales’ tales that Freedman herself purchased three of the fake paintings.
“I was a believer. Not to be stubborn, but I lived with three of those paintings,” she said. “I lived with them, and in the context of my personal collection.”
Freedman continues as an art dealer despite the scrutiny of the art scam.
She recently opened her own art gallery, FreedmanArt, on East 73 Street, in Manhattan.
The Bergantinos Diaz brothers face more than 20 years in prison each on the various charges facing them. Mainly because of the poor government relations between the two countries, it’s possible Qian will never be returned to the United States.
The FBI says the investigation is ongoing and refused to say whether agents believe there are more fake paintings in the marketplace. An FBI spokesman in the New York City field office declined to elaborate to AntiqueWeek.