In The Magazine

State of the Art: The Art of the Steal

Thursday, July 5, 2018


This month, State of the Art offers a tasting menu of art frauds and scams. The business of art is a nest for hatching collusion and a welcoming home to ignorance. Just which is in play is often hard to discern, even for the discerning. These morsels are all true, although names have been changed to protect the perfidious – none of whom have been incarcerated or even indicted. They are still roaming the streets, wreaking havoc on galleries, auction houses, financial institutions and collectors.

So, presented for your edification: a three-course meal of recent cases. Dear reader, since the justice system doesn’t do it, you get to decide the guilt, innocence or ignorance of the accused.

Start with a certain fraudster—let’s call him Karamazov—who is desperate to bid for a valuable painting at auction. Difficulty being, said clever soul has neither the funds nor sufficient liquidity to get a paddle (i.e. the right to bid). Undeterred, Karamazov boldly declares that he has a “high seven figure balance” in his bank account. Included in the declaration are the coordinates of a major bank and the name of a minor officer: Let’s call him Dopey. The auction house sends a request for confirmation and Dopey responds quickly and in writing confirming the “high seven figure” amount. Karmazov bids and wins a major piece of art—trouble being, he has no money to pay for it. A collection process ensues. The auction house sues Karmazov who, in turn, sues the auction house for fraud, a common ploy to delay a hopeless defense. Dopey, having left the bank, is questioned about his role. He replies that he does not quite understand accounting though he confirms he did, indeed, certify the balance to the auction house. Did Dopey think high seven figures included the digits after the decimal point?

Collusion or ignorance?

An Arab group purchases $40 million worth of paintings for a prestigious Middle Eastern institution through an agent we’ll call Romeo. Romeo says his client is royal and is believed, even though he, Romeo, was previously, if not widely, known as a purveyor of fake Jackson Pollacks. Romeo forwards the invoices to the local institution for payment, but no money comes. The seller’s agent asks both the purchaser and his agent to pay up but gets no response until certain mysterious “experts” communicate to the seller’s agent by email, though they imply they are in the same city where the sale was executed, and the artworks reside. They also claim they have somehow examined the goods, though that’s not true. The “experts” haven’t seen the paintings, have expressed no interest in meeting the sellers or their agent, and either don’t have a telephone or won’t disclose their number.

Based on the inspection that never happened, the “inspectors” then abruptly demand a forty percent reduction in the price of the art. The sellers’ agent brings suit and begins asking questions. It emerges that this group has done this before, promising to buy art and other items, soliciting invoices and presenting them to local institutional buyers, who happen to be controlled by the fraudsters. Then, the scammers reach out to the sellers, demanding discounts based on the opinions of invisible “experts,” and when successful, pocketing the difference.

Many sellers agree as the items have already been marked up enough to cover the discount. But our seller did not agree, and instead sued the buyer and agent in federal court. The buyer and Romeo defaulted by first appearing, but then failing to appear in court. Romeo, oh Romeo, are you a colluder or an ignoramus?

Over the course of five years, an art trader we’ll call Lolo purchases art through a defunct out-of-state company which, at one time, at least, apparently had a resale certificate. So the purchases, from dealers and auction houses, are made without New York sales tax being charged. Lolo has yet to be caught; probably a matter of time.

But are the dealers and auctioneers in cahoots? Or just see-no-evil innocents?

In 2016, Tolstoy seeks to refinance a work of art, claiming to have purchased it from Minskov two years earlier, and producing an invoice. He gets funds from a finance company and then, in 2017, Minskov claims co-ownership and places a lien on the work. The financier investigates and discovers that Minskov always co-owned the art and that the copy of the invoice given for financing had been tampered with, predated to 2014—by Minskov.

Is Minskov a perp or a dupe?

All of these art world players are still walking the streets, along with hundreds of others, many known to the art community and the authorities. Though there exist registers of stolen and Nazi-confiscated art, money launderers, forgers, and other forms of art crime, there is none for for these most insidious criminals and their collaborators. Law enforcement’s hands are mostly tied by lack of funds to pursue art crime. Legislation and regulation are severely wanting.  Romeo, wherefore art thou?  Just look over your shoulder. ✦


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