TIME Crime

NYC Officials Charge Suspected Masterminds Behind $33 Million Art Fraud

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Bharara speaks during an announcement of a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp in Washington
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara speaks during an announcement of a settlement with Anadarko Petroleum Corp at the Justice Department in Washington April 3, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

Federal authorities handed out a 12-count indictment charging three suspects of selling fraudulent art worth millons over the course of two decades and laundering the proceeds in a scam of Hollywood proportions

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan indicted three men on Monday of orchestrating the sale of $33 million of fraudulent art over two decades and hiding the laundered proceeds overseas.

Brothers Jesus Angel Bergantinos Diaz and Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz are suspected of conspiring with Chinese artist Pei Shen Qian, the alleged mastermind behind the forgeries, since the early 1990s.

According to officials, the team specialized in selling “world-famous abstract expressionist artists,” including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and later laundered the fraudulent earnings.

“Today’s charges paint a picture of perpetual lies and greed. As alleged, the defendants tricked victims into paying more than $33 million for worthless paintings, which they fabricated in the names of world-famous artists,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara on Monday.

The official went on to accuse the Bergantinos Diaz brothers of laundering the profits they garnered from the fraudulent sales and hiding the illegal proceeds abroad.

“With today’s indictment, the defendants must now answer for their alleged roles as modern masters of forgery and deceit.”

The Bergantinos brothers were reportedly arrested in Spain last week, while Pei is still at large but is believed to be residing in China. The trio is understood to have first met more than 20 years ago on a street corner in Manhattan where Pei was hawking paintings.

Over the next two decades, the trio is believed to have sold approximately $33 million in fraudulent art. The accused have not yet responded to the allegations.

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