The US Attorney’s office in New York unsealed its indictment Monday against three people accused of masterminding a decades-long, sophisticated art forgery ring worth $33 million.
The artist, Pei Shen Qian, who remains at large, along with Spanish brothers Jose Carlos and Jesus Angel Bergantinos Diaz, were charged on numerous counts of wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion.
Qian, a 75-year-old Chinese immigrant, made flawless copies of modern art masterpieces by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others in his workshop in Queens. The Bergantinos brothers discovered Qian selling his deftly produced copies on the street in the early 1990s and began buying his paintings, which they proceeded to resell to clueless art collectors as the real thing.
Glafira Rosales, the art dealer ex-girlfriend of Jose Carlos, was already indicted in the scheme last September. Rosales pled guilty to nine counts of fraud and conspiracy and now awaits sentencing.
A representative for the US Attorney’s office told VICE News that there are no federal laws that cover art forgery, which is why the charges used in the case don’t seem to have anything specifically to do with art itself.
An oft-cited statistic in the art world is that “art crime” (mostly theft but plenty of forgeries) is third only to drugs and weapons in terms of the value and amount of trafficked material across the world.
The worldwide epidemic of art theft, and the underground market for fakes, are so prevalent that both the FBI and Interpol have intelligence units that focus solely on combating these areas.
A former MoMA director estimates that as much as 40 percent art for sale in the market might be fake.
Interpol’s Works of Art unit fights art crime alongside similar units devoted to drugs, human trafficking, and international fugitives. According to Interpol, it is impossible to track exact statistics on art theft. But their database of stolen artworks lists 182 stolen pieces over the past two months alone.
The 14 agents that comprise the FBI’s Art Crime Team, established in 2004, have recovered over $150 million in stolen art over the years.
There’s even an academic journal. The Journal of Art Crime is published by the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), which also oversees a postgraduate certificate program in the subject.
ARCA director Lynda Albertson told VICE News that calculating statistics on art crime is impeded by the reporting techniques different investigators use, not to mention the often international nature of art smuggling. “Sometimes the value of the object doesn't even come into play in reporting,” she said.
“Depending on where a work of art gets stolen it might be logged as a cultural heritage crime, a theft over a specific financial amount or in the same category as a stolen TV set.”
“Statistics do nothing to mitigate the problem, even if the public likes to see scary numbers battered about to make the problem seem more relevant,” Albertson added, noting she’d rather see more resources put toward investigating crimes than gathering numerical data.
Most of the intelligence efforts directed toward art crime focus on the trafficking of cultural objects, meaning theft. The International Council of Museums’ “Red List” doesn’t even mention forgeries. Maybe that’s because museums are usually too embarrassed to admit that fake art might make up a large chunk of their own collections.
'We would think of it as a lack of originality, but in fact that is where the skill lies.'
It’s notoriously difficult to track just how much art crime occurs over the course of a given year, but art historians often cite former Met director Thomas Hoving’s statement that as much as 40 percent art for sale in the market might be fake. In his 1997 book False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, Hoving bemoans the disappearance of connoisseurship as a curatorial skill, and says that the art world is plagued by fakes because museum employees can’t tell the difference between a real ancient artwork and its impostor.
But here’s where it gets tricky. Qian, who created almost-perfect Rothkos in Woodhaven, Queens, still claims he didn’t know his copies were being sold as originals. According to the New York Times, Qian discovered his own painting by accident at a Manhattan art fair and shocked that it was listed for a huge price.
The indictment, though, says Qian learned of the scam and simply raised his rates, charging the Bergantinos brothers more for paintings he knew they were selling as originals. Jose Carlos is even accused of staining canvases with tea bags to create an antique effect.
The court document claims that Jesus Angel was arrested on April 14 and Jose Carlos Bergantinos was caught four days later, both in Spain. Qian is believed to be currently in China.
VICE News spoke with Italian art historian Michele Matteini, a specialist in Chinese forgery currently researching at Princeton. Matteini said that Qian’s brilliance in making exact copies reflects not only a copying ethos pervasive in Chinese art study, but also an entire industry.
“In China, everything can be forged — from paintings to iPhones,” Matteini said.
“There are professional forgers in China who are working 24/7 to produce these paintings. We would think of it as a lack of originality, but in fact that is where the skill lies.”
One can’t understand an art forger like Qian without placing him in the context of a place like Dafen in China, according to Matteini. In that Southern Chinese town, over 8,000 artists toil in workshops creating hundreds of perfect replicas per day. The resulting Van Goghs and Picassos are then sold openly — but as copies, not puporting to be originals.
“Tacky copies of western paintings go everywhere. They decorate hotels, they’re sold on the street. And there are craftsmen who work with dealers in the west to produce fake paintings,” Matteini told VICE News.
Guys like Pei Shen Qian, then, are everywhere. The question is, how often do they know that their copies of famous paintings are being bought cheap and sold for millions?
“Those guys have no name, no recognition,” said Matteini, “But they are actually incredible painters.”
Photo via Flickr
Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara