A talented Chinese painter and a trio of art-dealing crooks allegedly fooled the art world into purchasing $80 million dollars worth of forged masterpieces, all of which were created in a garage in Queens, N.Y.
One of the con-artists, Glafira Rosales, pleaded guilty last year to fraud and money laundering charges, according to The New York Times. Last week, Rosale's former boyfriend, Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, 58, and his brother, Jesus Angel Bergantiños Diaz, 65, were arrested in Spain and have been indicted on 12 charges in connection to the forgeries, according to court documents unsealed on Monday.
"Today's charges paint a picture of perpetual lies and greed. As alleged, the defendants tricked victims into paying more than $33 million for worthless paintings which they fabricated in the names of world-famous artists," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement Monday, per CNN. "The Bergantiños Diaz brothers then laundered and hid their illegal proceeds overseas. With today's [i]ndictment, the defendants must now answer for their alleged roles as modern masters of forgery and deceit."
The artist, Pei Shen Qian, 75, was also indicted but is suspected to have fled to China.
Qian told Bloomberg News in December that he never imagined his works would be sold off for millions as the real deal.
"I made a knife to cut fruit," he told Bloomberg. "But if others use it to kill, blaming me is unfair."
Qian was selling his own art in New York in the 1980s when he met Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz. According to Bloomberg, Bergantiños Diaz asked Qian to forge a modern masterpiece for $200. Qian obliged, and thus began a decades-long con.
Qian is believed to have reproduced the artworks of 20th century abstract masters such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, making a profit off each piece that ranged from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars, the indictment says. In turn, the art dealers stained the canvases with tea bags and used a blow dryer on the paint to make the pieces appear older, thus ensuring that experts would believe the works were originals.
New York’s prestigious Knoedler & Company gallery, which itself sold 40 of the fakes for an alleged $63 million, claims it had no clue the works were forgeries, according to New York magazine.
“They were very credible in so many respects,” Ann Freedman, the former gallerist at Knodelder, told NYmag in 2013 in light of the scandal. “I had the best conservation studio examine them. One of the Rothkos had a Sgroi stretcher. He made the stretchers for Rothko. They clearly had the right materials. I got a consensus. Some of the paintings were featured on museum walls.”