Master-forger of Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning charged in N.Y.

Tea bags, old paint and a hair dryer. These are the ingredients of a successful art forgery. Proximity to a flea market helps too. That’s where you can find old canvases and masonite, a hardboard found in old furniture that was also used by abstract expressionists.

Prosecutors in New York allege that those were a few tricks of the trade Pei-Shen Qian, a bit of a painting genius, used to create forgeries of works by famous 20th century artists including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning  that netted upward of $33 million for Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, his brother, Jesus Angel Bergantiños Diaz and Glafira Rosales.

The grand jury indictment, unsealed Monday, includes conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and other crimes. “Today’s charges paint a picture of perpetual lies and greed,” US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. The alleged forgery ring had been heavily publicized in articles in the New York Times, which described it as “one of the most sweeping art swindles in the last decade.”

Rosales pleaded guilty last year and has been cooperating with federal prosecutors in Manhattan.

It all began in the late 1980s, prosecutors say, when Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz spotted Qian selling paintings on a street corner in Manhattan.

The artist was good, very good.

And Diaz allegedly asked Qian to create a few paintings copying the style of famous painters and forging the artists’ signatures. Diaz sold Qian’s forgeries to art galleries and the two became partners in crime, the indictment says.

Diaz was paying Qian a few hundred for the fakes but his rate jumped into the thousands after Qian saw one of his forgeries selling for much more at an art show in the early 2000s.

A ledger from King’s Fine Arts, the business Diaz allegedly created as a front for the forgery operation, shows Qian was paid between $5,000 and $9,000 apiece for works created between 2005 and 2008.

Using tea-stained canvases or Masonite and paint from the era of the work he wanted to copy, Qian created his bogus masterpieces in his Queens, N.Y., apartment. Diaz would pick them up and further “age” the paintings by leaving them outdoors, heating them with a hair dryer and exposing them to cold temperatures.

To dupe prospective buyers and increase the value of the paintings, the Diaz brothers invented histories for them, creating false provenances for at least two of the paintings that detailed the creation, ownership and custody of the art work.

According to the allegations, they researched deceased collectors and art brokers to create a plausible chain of ownership. Rosales, Diaz’s then-girlfriend, pretended to represent owners conveniently located overseas. In at least one case the purported owner was a friend of Diaz’s who never actually owned a painting that Diaz and Rosales later sold to a gallery.

Two Manhattan-based art galleries that aren’t named in the indictment were repeat customers over the course of about 15 years, together buying 63 forgeries which they unwittingly sold to customers. One of the galleries made $43 million reselling the fake art. The New York Times has identified the galleries as Knoedler & Company, a respected 165 year-old institution that closed abruptly in 2011, and Julian Weissman, another Manhattan dealer. 

Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz was arrested last Friday, a few days after authorities nabbed his brother at a luxury hotel in Spain. 

Qian disappeared last year and is believed to be in China. In December, Qian defended his innocence to Business Week and even seemed proud of his handiwork:

“The FBI said they were done by the hands of a genius,” he said. “Well, that’s me. How strange it feels!”

Qian, 73, insisted on his innocence, outlining in his soft Shanghai accent a classic immigrant’s tale that took an odd twist. He made artworks that resembled those of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and others, yes, but he never intended to pass them off as those artists’ work for profit. Sitting in a gallery of his own works, Qian said: “I made a knife to cut fruit. But if others use it to kill, blaming me is unfair.”

According to the U.S. attorney, Qian claimed to investigators that he was “unfamiliar with the names” of the very artists whose signatures he allegedly forged on the paintings.

To see some of what has been described as Qian’s original work, click here. 

Gail Sullivan covers business for the Morning Mix blog.
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