Fine Art Forgeries:
Global Counterfeiting Scams Busted
(FBI) For lovers
of fine art, it was a veritable field day. In art shows and galleries
across the nation and around the world and over eBay, a trove of
limited edition prints by master artists started going up for sale
as early as the summer of 1999.
Counterfeit Picasso print "Francoise Gilot".
were two 1968 Pablo Picasso etchings signed in pencil by the
and numbered from an edition of only 50 prints. There
was a signed print of the “Eiffel Tower” by Marc
Chagall, just one of 90.
another Picasso print—a drawing called “Francoise
Gilot”—that had been obtained from the legendary
artist’s daughter. There were
thousands of prints by Calder, Dali, Warhol, Miro, Lichtenstein,
and other noted artists, often signed and numbered, complete
with certificates of authenticity.
for top dollar. And all total
sold by select dealers, it turns out, were counterfeits. The
signatures had been forged, the certificates fabricated, the
prices driven to inflated levels by “shill bids” on
eBay and by other marketing trickery.
individuals allegedly behind two separate but overlapping counterfeit
art rings—including art dealers in Illinois, Florida,
and New York and distributors in Spain and Italy—have
been charged in two indictments announced on Wednesday. Together,
the scheme is said to have cost victims in Australia, Canada,
Europe, Japan, and the U.S. more than $5 million.
code-named "Operation Dealer no Deal," was launched
two-and-a-half years ago by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service
and the Chicago Division of the FBI after eBay stepped forward
with information about fake artwork being sold through its
Internet auction website.
was a great partner in this case,” said Chicago Special
Agent Brian Brusokas, a member of the FBI’s Art Crime
Team who worked on the investigation. “They identified
sellers for us, gave us bidding histories, and shut down accounts
used by con artists.”
played a key role by going undercover in online transactions
and in face-to-face meetings. Also contributing to the investigation
were Los Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan police force) in Barcelona,
Spain; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents; and
the Northbrook Police Department in Illinois.
let it happen to you. Special Agent Brusokas has a few words
of advice when it comes to buying high-dollar art:
Think you’ve been victimized by fraudulent art sales?
Then report it to law enforcement by visiting the Northern District of Illinois
website or by calling its toll-free number at (866) 364-2621.
Art Crime Team, launched in 2004, includes 13 special agents
and three Department of Justice attorneys. To date, the team
has recovered 850 cultural objects valued at more than $134
Defendants Indicted for Alleged Roles in $5 Million International
Fraud Schemes Selling Counterfeit Fine Art Prints
– An international investigation of the production and sale of
counterfeit limited edition fine art prints of renowned artists,
has resulted in federal criminal charges against seven defendants,
including three Europeans and residents of Florida, New York
and Illinois, U.S. and Spanish law enforcement officials announced
today. Two separate indictments allege that the defendants sold
thousands of counterfeit prints-at prices well in excess of their
value-to victims in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe
and Japan. The indictments allege that the defendants together
reaped more than $5 million in illegal proceeds from the separate,
but overlapping fraud schemes. In both cases, investigators tracked
the distribution of bogus works, purportedly by such artists
as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Miro,
Andy Warhol and others, from counterfeit distributors to an art
dealer in north suburban Northbrook, who allegedly sold the inauthentic
prints to victims, primarily through eBay, an internet auction
dealer, Michael Zabrin, principal in Fineartmasters and Zfineartmasters,
was charged in one indictment, together with the three European
alleged counterfeit artwork distributors and a Florida art dealer.
A second Northbrook man, James Kennedy, principal in KFA of Illinois,
Inc., was charged in the second indictment together with an alleged
distributor of counterfeit artwork based in New York.
should not be confused with master artists," said Patrick
J. Fitzgerald, United States Attorney for the Northern District
of Illinois. "Buyers of limited edition fine art prints,
like all other buyers, are entitled to get what they pay for.
These indictments are significant because they extend across
international borders from one end of the supply chain to the
other. While we urge customers to exercise caution and skepticism
of deals that appear too good to be true, we are determined to
preserve the integrity of an open market."
announced the charges together with Thomas P. Brady, Inspector-in-Charge
of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Chicago, and Robert
D. Grant, Special Agent-in-Charge of the Chicago Office of the
Federal Bureau of Investigation. They were joined by Comissari
Antoni Permanyer, the investigation commander-in-chief of Mossos
d’Esquadra (the Catalan police), headquartered in Barcelona,
Spain. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents
and the Northbrook Police Department also assisted in the investigation,
which is continuing.
announced that anyone who suspects that they might be a victim
of fraudulent art sales may submit information to law enforcement
authorities via a form posted on the U.S. Attorney’s web site
at www.usdoj.gov/usao/iln . Persons without internet access may
call a toll-free number-(866) 364-2621-and leave a message with
the spelling of their name and an address, and a form will be
mailed to them.
a 10-count indictment (the "European indictment") were:
Oswaldo Aulestia-Bach, 62, of Barcelona, Spain; Elio Bonfiglioli,
53, of Monsummano, Italy; Patrizia Soliani, 56, of Milan, Italy,
and Miami Beach, Fla., all three of whom allegedly distributed
counterfeit artwork; Jerome Bengis, 61, of Coral Springs, Fla.,
principal in Bengis Fine Art gallery; and Michael Zabrin, 55,
of Northbrook. Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli were each charged
with 10 counts of fraud and the United States intends to seek
their extradition. Soliani, who was released on bond after she
was arrested and charged in a criminal complaint last summer,
was charged with four counts of fraud, while Bengis was charged
with two counts of fraud and Zabrin is facing six fraud counts.
Soliani, Bengis and Zabrin will be arraigned at a later date
in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
also seeks forfeiture of $4 million in addition to more than
$125,000 that was seized from bank accounts in San Francisco
belonging to Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli.
nine-count indictment charged James Kennedy, 55, of Northbrook,
with five counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice
for allegedly threatening injury on January 8, 2008, to an individual
who was communicating information to a law enforcement officer
in connection with this investigation. Kennedy was arrested on
that charge on January 31, 2008, in Jacksonville, Fla., and is
being held without bond in federal custody in Chicago. He has
a detention hearing scheduled for March 24. Charged with Kennedy
was Leon Amiel, Jr., also known as "Leon Glass," 36,
of New York City, principal in Glass Inter Corp., who was charged
with six counts of fraud. He will be arraigned at a later date
in Federal Court in Chicago. The Kennedy-Amiel indictment seeks
forfeiture of $1 million.
indictment alleges that the five defendants and others participated
in a fraud scheme between July 1999 and October 2007 in which
Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli caused counterfeit prints of works
by such artists as Miro, Warhol, Chagall, Picasso and others
to be manufactured in Spain and Italy. The two men allegedly
acquired what they knew were counterfeit prints bearing forged
signatures of renowned artists to distribute them as limited
edition works, and they knew that many of the prints bore false
numerical or other markings making them appear as if they had
been part of a limited edition or were prepared for the artist’s
own use. Aulestia-Bach at times allegedly forged the signatures
of certain artists, including Chagall, Lichtenstein, Miro and
the indictment, Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli distributed counterfeit
artwork to various dealers, including Soliani, Bengis and Zabrin,
who, knowing it was counterfeit, resold the prints to wholesale
and retail customers at prices substantially in excess of the
market value for inauthentic artwork. It adds that the two European
distributors allegedly cautioned Soliani to limit the amount
of counterfeit art in the market at one time.
details specific transactions involving the sale of allegedly
counterfeit limited edition art prints, including undercover
purchases by law enforcement agents. In one instance alleged
in the indictment, Zabrin offered two etchings for sale on eBay,
falsely representing that they were 1968 Picasso etchings from
the 347 Series, signed by the artist in pencil, and that they
were numbered from an edition limited to 50 prints.
also named as co-schemer in the Kennedy-Amiel indictment, which
alleges a fraud scheme between 2000 and January 2008 in which
the defendants and others acquired counterfeit prints of various
artists, including Alexander Calder and Salvador Dali, which
they knew bore forged signatures and/or false numbering. Kennedy
allegedly forged the signatures of certain artists, including
Calder, Chagall, Miro and Picasso.
In one instance,
according to the indictment, Amiel distributed to one dealer
2,500 counterfeit Calder prints and 600 counterfeit Chagall "Exodus" prints.
Kennedy allegedly traveled to art shows throughout the country
where he sold counterfeit artwork of prominent artists as genuine
limited edition prints. Between 2005 and 2007, Kennedy received
nearly $1.3 million from the sale of art, including 61 successful
auctions of counterfeit art on eBay, from he which he fraudulently
obtained more than $39,000, the indictment alleges.
is being represented by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nancy Miller,
Joseph Ferguson and Stephen Heinze.
each count of mail and wire fraud in both indictments carries
a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The obstruction of justice count against Kennedy carries a maximum
penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000. Restitution is
mandatory and the Court would determine the appropriate sentence
to be imposed under the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines.
is reminded that an indictment contains only charges and is not
evidence of guilt. The defendants are presumed innocent and are
entitled to a fair trial at which the United States has the burden
of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.