Federal authorities have indicted seven people in connection with operating counterfeit art rings that spanned the globe.
The scheme, which included art dealers in Illinois, Florida, and New York, cost victims around the world more than $5 million, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Two separate indictments allege the defendants sold thousands of counterfeit prints -- at grossly inflated prices -- to unsuspecting art lover in the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe and Japan.
The phony prints purportedly included works by such renowned artists as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Miro, Andy Warhol and others.
During the investigation -- dubbed "Operation Dealer No Deal" -- authorities traced the phony artwork from counterfeit distributors to an art dealer in north suburban Northbrook, Illinois.
Authorities discovered that art dealer -- Michael Zabrin of Fineartmasters and Zfineartmasters -- allegedly sold the fake prints to victims around the world. He often sold the counterfeit prints on the Internet auction site, eBay.
Authorities charged Zabrin, three European distributors, and a Florida art dealer in one indictment.
They also charged another Northbrook, Illinois man, James Kennedy, principal in KFA of Illinois, Inc., and an art distributor in New York, in a second indictment.
"Con artists should not be confused with master artists," said Patrick J. Fitzgerald, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. "Buyers of limited edition fine art prints, like all other buyers, are entitled to get what they pay for.
"These indictments are significant because they extend across international borders from one end of the supply chain to the other. While we urge customers to exercise caution and skepticism of deals that appear too good to be true, we are determined to preserve the integrity of an open market."
FBI officials in Chicago and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service launched their investigation into the counterfeit art rings more than years ago.
During their investigations, authorities discovered that scores of limited edition prints -- by such renowned artists as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol -- started going up for sale as early as 1999 in art shows and galleries around the world.
Some paintings were also sold over Ebay.
These rare works of art included:
• Two 1968 Pablo Picasso etchings signed in pencil by the artist and numbered from an edition of only 50 prints;
• A signed print of the "Eiffel Tower" by Marc Chagall, just one of 90;
• Another Picasso print -- a drawing called "Francoise Gilot" -- that had been obtained from the legendary artist's daughter;
• Thousands of prints by such famed artists as Alexander Calder, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro, and Roy Lichtenstein.
The artwork was often signed and numbered -- and included certificates of authenticity. All of the pieces sold for top dollar. And all of them turned out to be counterfeit.
Authorities learned the signatures had been forged, the certificates fabricated, and the prices driven to inflated levels by "shill bids" on eBay and by other marketing trickery.
The worldwide investigation lead to the two separate indictments filed last week in connection with the counterfeit rings.
In a 10-count indictment (called the "European indictment") authorities charged Oswaldo Aulestia-Bach, 62, of Barcelona, Spain; Elio Bonfiglioli, 53, of Monsummano, Italy; and Patrizia Soliani, 56, of Milan, Italy, and Miami Beach, Florida. Authorities allege these individuals distributed counterfeit artwork.
Authorities specifically charged Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli with 10 counts of fraud and said the United States intends to seek their extradition.
Soliani was charged with four counts of fraud.
The European indictment also charged Jerome Bengis, 61, of Coral Springs, Fla., principal in Bengis Fine Art gallery, with two counts of fraud, and Michael Zabrin, 55, of Northbrook, Illinois, with six counts of fraud.
According to the indictment, Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli distributed counterfeit artwork to various dealers -- including Soliani, Bengis and Zabrin. Those three art dealers then resold the phony prints to wholesale and retail customers at grossly inflated prices, according to the indictment.
Authorities also say the European distributors allegedly cautioned Soliani to limit the number of counterfeit pieces on the market at one time.
The indictment seeks forfeiture of $4 million and the more than $125,000 authorities seized from bank accounts in San Francisco that belonged to Aulestia-Bach and Bonfiglioli.
The second indictment charged James Kennedy, 55, of Northbrook, Illinois, with five counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice for allegedly threatening an individual who was communicated with authorities during the investigation.
Police arrested Kennedy on the obstruction of justice charge on January 31, 2008, in Jacksonville, Florida. He is being held without bond in federal custody in Chicago.
The second indictment also named Leon Amiel, Jr., also known as "Leon Glass," 36, of New York City, principal in Glass Inter Corp., with six counts of fraud.
Authorities also named Zabrin as a co-schemer in the Kennedy-Amiel indictment. They allege that between 2000 and January 2008 the three defendants and others acquired counterfeit prints of various artists, including Alexander Calder and Salvador Dali. These prints all had forged signatures and/or false numbering.
Authorities allege that Kennedy forged the signatures of certain artists, including Calder, Chagall, Miro and Picasso.
In one instance, according to the indictment, Amiel distributed to one dealer 2,500 counterfeit Calder prints and 600 fake Chagall "Exodus" prints.
Kennedy allegedly traveled to art shows throughout the country where he sold counterfeit artwork of prominent artists as genuine limited edition prints. Between 2005 and 2007, Kennedy received nearly $1.3 million from these sales. That figure includes 61 successful auctions of counterfeit art on eBay, which netted more than $39,000.
Authorities say the indictments are not evidence of guilt and the defendants are presumed innocent until they are proven guilty in a court of law.
The counterfeit art ring investigation started when Ebay came forward with information about phony artwork sold on its auction site, authorities say.
"EBay was a great partner in this case," said Chicago Special Agent Brian Brusokas, a member of the FBI's Art Crime Team who worked on the investigation. "They identified sellers for us, gave us bidding histories, and shut down accounts used by con artists."
Postal inspectors also went undercover in online transactions and in face-to-face meetings during the investigation. Other law enforcement agencies that assisted in the case included Los Mossos d'Esquadra (the Catalan police force) in Barcelona, Spain, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and the Northbrook Police Department in Illinois.
What to do?
How can art lovers protect themselves from losing money in a counterfeit scheme like this? FBI Special Agent Brian Brusokas offers this advice:
• "Get a complete provenance or chain of custody on each piece to find out where the art came from originally. Was it obtained directly from an estate, for example? This information provides a way to double-check the piece's history instead of just relying on the certificate of authenticity."
• "Research the dealer carefully. Find out if they sell only online or if they have a gallery."
• "For pieces of art you already own, you can go back to the gallery and ask for provenance on your print. You can also contact artists' foundations, which will do side-by-side comparisons with originals for a fee."
• "And remember, when you're trying to find that one treasure from someone's garage, that's when you're more likely to let your guard down."
Consumers who believe they have lost money in a counterfeit art scheme can contact the Northern District of Illinois U.S. Attorney at (866) 364-2621 or through its Web site.