Connecticut art dealer David Crespo is no stranger to legal entanglements. Before he recently pleaded guilty for selling fake Marc Chagall and Picasso works on the Internet, the owner of the Brandon Gallery in Madison was sued by a fellow art dealer in 2008.
The dispute was over who owned a $220,000 collage created by the famous surrealist Salvador Dali.
The collage, featuring an abstract image of the face of the Greek goddess Minerva, was sold at Sotheby's auction house in New York. Crespo and the other dealer, Philip Sofaro, each claimed the money from the sale should go to them.
After a lengthy series of pre-trial motions over who owned the work, "Folle Folle Folle Minerva," a federal judge found the evidence of ownership presented by the Long Island gallery more credible than Crespo's records. Crespo appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which in 2010 said it had no jurisdiction over the matter.
From there, things went downhill fast. Last year, Crespo was arrested and charged in an undercover sting operation. Federal authorities accused him of selling fraudulent pieces of work from famous artists on the internet auction site eBay.
Like the civil case, the criminal matter largely hinged on Crespo's records of what he bought and sold.
Crespo is the latest art dealer in Connecticut to face charges related to his business dealings. Last month, James Meyer, a former assistant to artist Jasper Johns, was indicted for selling 22 works that he allegedly stole from Johns' studio in Sharon. Meyer is facing the charges in federal court in Hartford.
In a state with plenty of money and plenty of art galleries, lawyers who represent clients in probate or family law matters that include high value art works said scams and frauds are a constant threat. Imitation art works, created with the help of high-tech printers and computer software, are becoming the biggest problem, one lawyer said.
"The art fraud situation is obviously getting worse," said Allan P. Cramer, of Cramer & Ahern in Westport. He's represented high-profile artists in sales of their works, which generally start at over $100,000. "Just about every art dealer has gotten stuck at least once."
Attorney Barry Werbin, of Herrick, Feinstein in New York City, took the technology angle one step further.
"There is no question that the Internet has made it easier to commit art fraud," he said. "Assessing the legitimacy of any work of art at a gallery or auction house, where the work can been seen in person and examined by a buyer's art consultant, is itself not always easy or certain to result in the purchase of a bona fide original. Now remove the ability to examine a work in person in an online context and you have a recipe for potential fraud that is magnified exponentially."
In the art world, being able to follow the work's "provenance," or chain of ownership is an important way to determine not only who is the rightful owner of the piece, but also the authenticity and value of the work.
Crespo learned that lesson the hard way.
Marc Chagall is widely considered to be among the most influential artists of the 20th century, and original lithographs of his work can be quite valuable. An original lithograph is an authorized reproduction of a piece of artwork, map, or text that has been created using a distinctive printing process.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Connecticut, Crespo paid $50,000 for reproductions of lithographs by Chagall and Pablo Picasso. In January 2010, Crespo met with an undercover FBI agent at his gallery in Madison. During their conversation, according to authorities, Crespo and the agent discussed a lithograph known as "The Presentation of Chloe," which Crespo said was an "original lithograph" that was part of a limited edition collection. The agent agreed to buy it for $2,000.
Federal prosecutors say Crespo knew the prints were fakes. As evidence of what Crespo knew, investigators turned to his computer records that were seized, along with stacks of paintings and prints from his gallery.
From the computer records, investigators learned that Crespo bought the prints in 2005 through the auction site eBay, and from a website called "Collectart4Less." Prosecutors also said they found evidence of communications from an art expert at Sotheby's, who advised Crespo that they were not original works. That evidence proved crucial in the government's case against Crespo.
In August 2012, Crespo was indicted on 12 counts of defrauding his customers. On September 3, 2013, he pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud, relating to the sale of the Chagall print.
When Crespo is sentenced on November, he faces up to 20 years in prison. His lawyer, Richard Marquette, did not return a call seeking comment. The case is being prosecuted by Connecticut Assistant U.S. Attorneys Anthony E. Kaplan and Liam Brennan.
An FBI official said Connecticut is a place where there might be more forged artwork than other places, given the relative wealth of the state and its proximity to New York City. "Wherever there is art and there are collectors, there are vulnerabilities there," said Bonnie Magness-Gardner, Art Theft Program manager for the FBI. "Where is there art? Where there are very wealthy people."
Magness-Gardner said the FBI doesn't have statistics on crime involving art forgeries, but she senses that there is "quite a lot of fraud." She said the Internet age has "cut both ways." On one hand, Internet buyers can be more vulnerable because they aren't able to examine first-hand the artwork they are purchasing. On the flip side, computer records allow authorities to more easily track sellers of bogus artwork.
Magness-Gardner offered tips for lawyers who have clients who buy expensive art from dealers. "Know who you are dealing with, check their reputation, the Better Business Bureau," she said. "Is he an expert? Is there anything in previous associations with sales that would provide a red flag?"
Once someone buys an expensive work, they should document it with photos, sales receipts, and note dimensions and anything unique about it. If the buyer can't prove they once owned an item that is later stolen, authorities won't be able to return it to them. "I would think that would be incredibly frustrating," she said.
Cramer, who advises clients on art buys, said extra care should be given when buying works from prolific artists. "There are a lot of Picassos out there, so they might be easier to copy," he said. "If someone is going to forge paintings, chances are they'll pick someone who did several thousand pieces."
Another rule, he said, is the smell test. "If something is really cheap, there's probably a reason," he said.•