A 75-year-old Chinese-born painter accused of forging works by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning while living in the United States, looks likely to avoid prosecution after moving back to China.
Qian Peishen is alleged to have knowingly played a part in a US$33 million fraud scheme in New York.
On Monday he was indicted on charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and lying to the FBI, and could face up to 45 years in prison if found guilty.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan allege that he produced dozens of worthless fakes that were eventually sold by prestigious galleries for tens of millions of dollars.
US attorney Preet Bharar accused Qian and a pair of Spanish art dealers of being “modern masters of forgery and deceit”, and said the charges against the trio “paint a picture of perpetual lies and greed”.
Qian and his wife are believed to have left for China several months before he was named as “the painter” at the centre of the scandal last August.
At some point before that, US prosecutors confirm, he was questioned by the FBI. But he claimed not to know Rosales or the names of artists whose work and signatures he is accused of forging, and insisted he had not faked their style.
The dealers – brothers Jose Carlos, 58, and Jesus Angel Bergantinos Diaz, 65 – are awaiting likely extradition proceedings, after being arrested and bailed in Spain last week.
However, prosecutors said on Monday only that Qian, who previously lived in Queens with his wife, was “believed to be located in China”, which has no extradition treaty with the US.
An FBI spokesperson said: “We do hope to make an arrest, but he is in China.”
The Obama administration has little chance of extracting Qian, who has both Chinese and American citizenship, even if it were willing to devote diplomatic efforts to doing so, said Professor Julian Ku, an expert on China and international law at Hofstra University, in New York.
“There is almost no chance that China would turn their own citizen over,” Ku said. “They generally don’t have a policy of co-operating, and don’t have any reason to turn anyone over, because the US won’t turn anyone over to China.
“The downside for him will be that he can’t travel to the States any more, or to other countries with which the US does have an extradition treaty – most of Europe, many countries in South America and Hong Kong,” Ku said. “But China is a good place to run if you are fearing prosecution in the US.”
Qian said last December that he was the innocent victim of a “very big misunderstanding” and had never intended to pass off his paintings as the genuine works of modern masters.
“I made a knife to cut fruit,” he said. “But if others use it to kill, blaming me is unfair.”
However, a 42-page indictment, unsealed on Monday, alleged that he knowingly participated in a fraud plot with the Bergantinos Diaz brothers and Glafira Rosales, an art dealer who is also Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz’s former girlfriend.
Rosales, 57, pleaded guilty last year to crimes related to selling 60 fraudulent artworks, and has been co-operating with authorities.
Manhattan US prosecutor Preet Bharara said: "[The] charges paint a picture of perpetual lies and greed. As alleged, the defendants tricked victims into paying more than US$33 million for worthless paintings."
The three men, along with Rosales, are alleged to have carried out the scheme from the early 1990s until at least June 2009.
Qian, who once painted portraits of Chairman Mao for display in Chinese workplaces and schools, arrived in the US on a student visa in 1981.
He is said to have been discovered by Jose Carlos later that decade as he was painting at an easel on a lower Manhattan street corner.
The indictment alleged he began copying works by artists such as Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, and forging the artists’ signatures; then, despite knowing “they were essentially worthless imitations”, Jose Carlos would sell the copies to galleries.
Prosecutors said that by the early 1990s, Qian was churning out signed fakes from his home studio in Queens under instructions from the Bergantinos Diaz brothers and Rosales. In pursuit of authentic-looking forgeries, Jose Carlos is said to have bought Qian old canvases at flea markets and auctions, and supplied him with old paint.
He also “stained newer canvases with tea bags to give them the false appearance of being older than they really were”, the indictment claims, which also claimed that some works were subjected to the heat of a hairdryer, while others were left outside and exposed to the elements.
Works by other modern artists, such as Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Sam Francis and Franz Kline, were also copied by Qian, said prosecutors, who found he had owned books and auction catalogues about the artists he copied.
Prosecutors alleged that throughout the 1990s, Qian was sometimes paid as little as “several hundred” dollars for each forgery, but that after spotting one of his creations priced far higher in a Manhattan art show, he “demanded more money” – and got it.
By February 2008, Jose Carlos was allegedly writing Qian cheques for up to US$7,000 per painting.
However, far bigger sums of money were involved when the trio of dealers allegedly sold the forgeries on to respected New York galleries.
The prestigious Knoedler & Co – referred to as “Gallery 1” in the indictment – is alleged to have paid US$20.7 million for Qian’s forgeries – and then made US$43 million in profit by selling them to wealthy collectors.
A second gallery is said to have made US$4.5 million selling Qian fakes that it bought for US$12.5 million.
Knoedler, which closed in 2011, is being sued for millions of dollars in lawsuits brought by disgruntled buyers. The gallery and its former executives have always denied committing any fraud and insisted that they made comprehensive efforts to authenticate Qian’s paintings.
The Bergantinos Diaz brothers and Rosales are accused of faking detailed backstories of the paintings and falsely claiming to represent clients in Europe.
Rosales pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges in September last year and faces up to 99 years in prison when she is sentenced later this year.
She was also ordered to forfeit US$33.2 million in property and wealth and may face further penalties.
The brothers are charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud and money laundering. Jose Carlos, who lived in New York, is also accused of defrauding the US Inland Revenue Service and filing false tax returns to hide more than US$7 million in income from the scheme.
If he is convicted of all the charges against him, he could be sentenced to as much as 114 years in prison. His brother faces a sentence of up to 80 years.
An official from the Spanish interior ministry told the New York Times last week that, after Jose Carlos was arrested at a hotel in Seville last Friday, he suffered an anxiety attack and was taken to hospital. His brother had been arrested in Spain four days earlier, US prosecutors say. Neither of the brothers could be reached for comment.
The US is expected to request the extradition of the two men by Spanish authorities under a treaty agreed to by the two countries in 1970.
Qian, however, is likely to prove more elusive.