In the larger of two cases – the so-called ‘European indictment’ – five people face ten counts of fraud relating to the import of forgeries from Europe and the channeling of them through a Chicago dealer who provided certificates of authenticity. Most were copies of original limited-edition prints by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Lichtenstein, Miró and Dalí and sold for up to $50,000 (£25,000) each.
So large was the scam that it is thought 2500 counterfeit Alexander Calder prints and 600 counterfeit Chagalls alone were issued. Prosecutors in the combined American/Spanish operation say the prints were trickled onto the market through galleries, fairs and eBay, between July 1999 and October 2007.
The investigation started when eBay came forward with information regarding counterfeit art and unusual bidding activity on its site. US Postal Inspection Service officials went undercover, buying the fakes both online and face-to-face. Authorities learned the signatures had been forged, certificates fabricated, and prices driven to inflated levels by ‘shill’ bids.
During the investigation – dubbed Operation Dealer No Deal – the fakes were traced to Michael Zabrin of Fineartmasters and Zfineartmasters, a dealer based in the Chicago suburb Northbrook. Last year he pleaded guilty to selling fake Chagall prints and is now cooperating with federal prosecutors.
The indictment also named Florida art dealer Jerome Bengis of Bengis Fine Art, Spaniard Oswaldo Aulesti-Bach and Italians Elio Bonfiglioli and Patrizia Soliani. Austelia-Bach and Bonfiglioli are accused of acquiring the fakes and forging signatures before distributing them to Zabrin, Bengis and Soliani for sale.
The indictment seeks the forfeiture of $4m profits and more than $125,000 seized from San Francisco bank accounts in the names of Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli. If convicted of mail and wire fraud, the defendants could face maximum penalties of 20 years in prison and fines of $250,000.
Zabrin, who was jailed for a similar offence in 1994, is named as a co-schemer in a separate case. The second indictment charges James Kennedy, also of Northbrook, Illinois, with forging the signatures and falsely numbering 2500 prints produced by Leon Amiel Jr. of New York.
Counterfeiting included reproducing actual works by artists as well as selling fakes executed in each one’s particular style. Between 2005 and 2007, Kennedy received nearly $1.3m from these sales. That figure includes 61 successful auctions of counterfeit art on eBay, which netted more than $39,000. The duo face nine counts of fraud and a demand to forfeit $1m.
Buyers who bought the bogus prints in Illinois are protected by a state law known as the Fine Prints Disclosure Act. This requires sellers to reveal the origin of works they sell and gives aggrieved buyers a right to recover up to three times the purchase price of the work as damages.