It was one of the most audacious art scams in history: a $33 million racket over two decades that involved creating and selling bogus works by artists including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem do Kooning. Now, three of the culprits have been charged in New York, and their indictment pretty much reads like a how-to guide to forging a masterpiece.
First, scour art auctions and flea markets for old, cheap canvases or old furniture made with Masonite (the fav medium of some Abstract Expressionists). Use paint sourced from the era you're trying to replicate. Once you're done, stain newer canvases with tea bags, as the indictment reads, "to give them the false appearance of being older than they actually (are)".
Then, get some shady art dealers – in this case, Glafira Rosales and Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz – to pass them off as newly discovered masterpieces, fooling dealers, collectors and experts alike.
Simple, right? But the fraud flourished for an incredible 15 years, thanks to the skill of Pei Shen Qian, a 75-year-old Chinese immigrant who had been part of Shanghai's experimental art scene in the 70s. Bergantiños first encountered Qian selling his art on a street in Manhattan. He went on to create over 60 forgeries for Rosales and Bergantiños, who fenced them to two of the biggest art galleries in Manhattan.
One art critic dubbed Qian a "genius" for his ability to mimic individual artists. His own work, however, was less well-received: a New York Times reviewer called his original paintings "the opposite of original". (Which makes sense, when you think about it.)
Rosales pleaded guilty to fraud, money laundering, tax charges and other crimes last year, while Bergantiños and his brother are being charged in an 11-count indictment, along with Qian, who seems to have fled to China.
Unfortunately, Qian never earned much from the scam: he was paid only about $6,000 for each forgery. Maybe the secret ingredient was the tea?
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing
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