Key Suspect in Art Scheme Is Under Arrest in Spain

By William K. Rashbuam
The New York Times
April 20, 2014 


A Spanish art dealer identified by the authorities in the United States as a central figure in one of the most sweeping art swindles in the last decade has been arrested in Spain, and a government official there said on Sunday that he expected the United States to request his extradition.

The art dealer, Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, who has been sought for many months, was arrested by the Spanish police on Friday at a luxury hotel in downtown Seville, according to the official, who is with the Spanish Interior Ministry in Madrid. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Mr. Bergantiños’s brother, Jesus Angel Bergantiños Diaz, was also arrested, according to another person with knowledge of the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no charges have been announced in the case. It was not immediately clear whether the United States will seek his extradition as well, but some $33 million netted from the scheme was transferred to bank accounts in his name in Spain.

The Spanish Interior Ministry official said that Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, who had an anxiety attack after his arrest and was briefly hospitalized, was being held by the police in Seville. But he is likely to be transferred to Madrid in the coming days, the official said, where he will appear before a judge pending an expected extradition request from the United States.

It could not be determined on Sunday whether Mr. Bergantiños had yet retained a lawyer to represent him in Spain or in the United States.

Federal prosecutors and F.B.I. agents in New York believe that Mr. Bergantiños carried out a daring forgery swindle that fooled the art world, leading collectors to spend more than $80 million on dozens of fake masterworks by painters including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell.

The swindle, officials have said, was carried out with Mr. Bergantiños’s girlfriend, Glafira Rosales, who was charged last May and pleaded guilty in September in the scheme. She has been cooperating with the federal authorities.

The marketing of the fake paintings, many of which were sold through the offices of what was once New York’s oldest gallery, Knoedler & Company, has been among the most stunning art market scandals of the last decade.

In addition to the criminal case, the swindle has led to a dozen civil lawsuits, in which some of those who bought the paintings have sought to recoup losses.

One element of the scheme that has riveted the art world is the source of the fraud: a single immigrant from China who painted out of his home and garage in Woodhaven, Queens, and produced the scores of paintings and drawings that were successfully presented as newly discovered works by some of the 20th century’s greatest artists.

The painter, Pei-Shen Qian, received formal training at an art school in New York. Federal authorities, who identified Mr. Bergantiños as Co-Conspirator No. 1 in the indictment charging Ms. Rosales, said he met and befriended Mr. Qian in the 1980s, while the artist was painting on the street in Manhattan.

The F.B.I. has been seeking Mr. Qian, who federal officials have said created the fake masterworks at his house in Queens, since last year, when he was believed to have fled to China. He is also expected to be charged.

The specific charges against Mr. Bergantiños, on which the expected extradition request would be based, were unclear on Sunday, because any superseding indictment or criminal complaint would be filed in federal court in Manhattan under seal.

But when Ms. Rosales pleaded guilty in September, she admitted to committing wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering, money laundering conspiracy and other crimes. She has not been sentenced. The charges against Mr. Bergantiños, one official said, will probably be similar.

Federal officials have said that Mr. Bergantiños treated the canvases to make them look old and then forged the signatures of artists like Pollock and Motherwell.

A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. declined to comment Sunday, as did a spokesman for the office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, whose lawyers are prosecuting the case.