A Long Island dealer at the centre of an US$80 million art forgery scheme that duped dozens of experts and buyers has pleaded guilty in New York to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
What has fascinated the art world is that the scores of paintings and drawings successfully presented as newly discovered works by some of the 20th century's greatest artists were actually fakes produced by a single man: an elderly immigrant from China who painted out of his home and garage in Queens.
The dealer, Glafira Rosales, is the only person indicted in connection with the fraud. But she is co-operating with US federal prosecutors, who have said they expect further arrests.
Rosales, speaking in a halting, barely audible voice, acknowledged to Judge Katherine Failla in US District Court in Manhattan that she had promoted paintings as the work of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell that "were, in fact, fakes created by an individual in Queens".
Investigators have said that 40 of the counterfeits were sold through Knoedler & Co., a venerable Upper East Side gallery that abruptly closed in November 2011 after being in business for more than 165 years. At least 23 other fakes were sold through a second Manhattan dealer, Julian Weissman, according to the indictment. Rosales earned US$33.2 million, while the galleries received more than US$47 million in total, according to a statement issued by the Manhattan US attorney, Preet Bharara.
Knoedler; Ann Freedman, its former president; and Weissman are being sued in civil court by various clients who bought art provided by Rosales; they have all said that they were convinced that the works were genuine, though they have acknowledged that Rosales did not provide them with documentation to establish the art's provenance.
In court, Rosales, who was arrested in May, dabbed at her eyes with a tissue after she detailed her role in the fraud and listened to the judge explain that she could owe up to US$81 million in restitution and have to forfeit her home in Sands Point, New York; her art collection; and her bank accounts. She also faces a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison, although her recommended sentence under federal sentencing guidelines is likely to be far less.
Rosales' co-conspirators are not named in the indictment. But people familiar with the case have identified the painter as Qian Pei-Shen, 73, a Chinese immigrant who came to the US in 1981 and attended classes at the Art Students League in New York. He was discovered in the 1980s by Rosales' partner and former boyfriend, who was named in the government's papers only as co-conspirator "CC-1" but is identified in other court documents as Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz.
Both men were involved in marking the counterfeits with false signatures, according to the statement issued by Bharara's office. The prosecutors said CC-1 had treated the works to give them "the false patina of age".
Qian was paid as little as a few thousand dollars for each work.
Beginning in 1994, Rosales wove a story about the never-before-seen works, telling Knoedler and Weissman the owner had inherited the works from his father and insisted on anonymity.
Bergantinos Diaz and Qian are believed to be out of the country. Most of the profits garnered by Rosales through the sale of the fakes were funnelled through a bank account in Spain controlled by Bergantinos Diaz's brother, according to court papers.