In the 1980s, Pei-Shen Qian, the painter at the center of an $80 million art forgery case, used to set up his easel near Manhattan’s West Fourth Street and hustle.
Qian, a Chinese national living in the U.S. on a student visa, competed with other artists to convince people walking by that they needed their portraits painted. His rate started at $15 and on a good day he’d go home with $200, though he might have to work past midnight to get it. One day, a man offered him $200 to do an imitation of a modern art masterpiece -- he can’t recall which master. It was impossible to say no.
The artist and his patron -- a man Qian said he knows only as Carlos -- are now at the center of a scandal that has upended New York’s art scene. When dealer Glafira Rosales pleaded guilty in September to selling more than 60 fake paintings -- most of them through the prestigious Knoedler & Co. gallery -- she revealed that every single one of them was the creation of one man, a painter virtually unknown in Manhattan’s salons, working from his modest home in Queens. It was Qian, who says no one was more surprised than he was.
“The FBI said they were done by the hands of a genius,” he said on a recent morning in Shanghai. “Well, that’s me. How strange it feels!”
In his first interview for the Western media, Qian, 73, insisted on his innocence, outlining in his soft Shanghai accent a classic immigrant’s tale that took an odd twist. He made artworks that resembled those of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and others, yes, but he never intended to pass them off as those artists’ work for profit. Sitting in a gallery of his own works, Qian said: “I made a knife to cut fruit. But if others use it to kill, blaming me is unfair.”
John Howard says he knows precisely whom to blame. Howard runs Irving Place Capital Partners LP, a $2.7 billion private equity firm. He’s also the not-terribly proud owner of one of Qian’s imitations, a painting sold to him for $4 million as the work of Willem de Kooning. Howard bought the fake from the Knoedler gallery, a tony Upper East Side institution that had been in business since before the Civil War. The gallery, which closed in November 2011, was owned by Michael Hammer, the wealthy grandson of industrialist Armand Hammer, former chairman of Occidental Petroleum Corp.
Now, Howard is suing Knoedler, its former president Ann Freedman, and various others for fraud, and trying to get his money back. “It’s like a joke on the world of art,” Howard said. “Here I am dealing with the Knoedler gallery, one of the most prestigious galleries in the U.S., founded before the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If this person was selling these things on the street, we wouldn’t buy it. But this is the Knoedler gallery.”
Lawyers for Freedman and Knoedler say the gallery committed no fraud, sought expert opinions to authenticate the works, and was transparent about its efforts with buyers.
At least seven civil lawsuits have been filed against the gallery and its former president over Qian’s paintings. Plaintiffs include Domenico De Sole, chairman of Tom Ford International; Nicholas Taubman, the former chief executive officer of Advance Auto Parts Inc.; and a trust for the Hilti family, of the Liechtenstein-based machinery and toolmaker Hilti AG.
Howard focuses his anger on Knoedler, which netted $43 million selling Qian’s fakes, according to the federal indictment, and on Freedman, who he said convinced him to buy the work. He says the painter’s role -- what he knew or didn’t know -- will never be clear. “Clearly this is a very talented person that he was able to do so many things so well,” Howard said, “and so that Knoedler and Freedman could fool so many people.”
Qian showed an early aptitude for imitation. As a primary school student, his drawings of door gods -- the traditional images of knights or gods said to protect Chinese homes from evil -- were so good that his teacher insisted they were tracings from originals, he recalled. As Communists took control of mainland China, his parents, who owned a printing plant, escaped to Taiwan in 1950 with the three youngest of their seven children. Qian, barely 12, stayed with the remaining siblings and later moved in with relatives in Shanghai.
During the Cultural Revolution, with all the arts under strict state control, Qian painted portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong for schools and factories, and kept the leftover paint, a scarce commodity, as a reward, he said. He treasured the books of modern art his family in Taiwan managed to send, though not all arrived. One, on Picasso, was confiscated; Qian got a notice informing him it was “unhealthy.”
In January 1979, after the Cultural Revolution’s end, Qian and 11 friends rekindled the Shanghai art scene by staging their own exhibition, an event remembered today as the beginning of a new era for Chinese art, according to critic Li Xianting in a 2007 article. Qian’s abstract of lights reflected in Shanghai’s Suzhou Creek drew particular attention, and Qian recalled that a Chinese reporter from New York told him it could sell for $1,000 there. He was earning 65 yuan ($42 at the time) per month.
Moving to the U.S. had another appeal: The student visa he received in 1981 allowed him to transit through Hong Kong and, for the first time in more than 30 years, see his parents. “I couldn’t control my tears, 30 years’ worth of tears,” he said of their nine-day reunion. At the same time, he left his own wife and two daughters in Shanghai and wouldn’t see them again for eight years.
In New York, he enrolled at the Art Students League, worked as a janitor to support himself, and took to the streets to paint passersby. That’s when he met Carlos.
Over a decade and a half, the man -- who has been identified in civil lawsuits as Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz -- brought him dozens of orders for works that imitated famed modern artists. Qian’s commissions topped out at $3,000 apiece, he said, and throughout Bergantinos told him he was making artwork for fans of the masters who couldn’t afford the genuine articles.
By the early 1990s, Qian’s wife and a daughter had joined him in the U.S., and they bought a $190,000 house in Woodhaven, Queens. He became a U.S. citizen shortly after that. Bergantinos became his agent, Qian said, his sole guide through New York’s daunting art market. He also helped sell some of Qian’s signature work -- tapestries of faceless court ladies created on used burlap he’d bought from Chinatown stores -- in China, Qian said, where he earned $7,000 on one.
Qian also got to know Rosales, the dealer who pleaded guilty in September. Bergantinos introduced her as his wife, and over the years Qian watched as they and their daughter moved into bigger and bigger houses, he said. They haven’t spoken since 2008, Qian said. While Bergantinos was referred to only as “CC-1” in the government’s fraud case against Rosales, his name has surfaced in other court papers.
Bergantinos is no longer in the U.S., said Anastasios Sarikas, who’s listed as his and Rosales’s lawyer in several court cases. Sarikas said he is in the process of asking courts to relieve him of representing the pair. “These are people that I admired, people that I believed made something of themselves out of nothing,” the lawyer said. “And then I found out what they did, and I’ve lost two people that I considered very good friends.”
The scandal in New York is “a very big misunderstanding,” Qian said, incredulous that anyone would have considered his imitations to be the genuine work of masters. “Nobody would take them seriously,” he said. “It’s impossible to imitate them -- from the papers to the paints to the composition. It’s impossible to do it exactly.”
Those are the very issues involved in the lawsuits that Howard and others have brought against the Knoedler gallery. Howard’s faux de Kooning, which he bought to fulfill his father’s lifelong dream of owning one, was supposed to date to the 1950s, yet included pigment that wasn’t in use until decades later.
Buyers like Howard weren’t art experts, and they relied on the sterling reputation of Knoedler, said John Cahill, an expert in art law who’s representing Howard. The gallery catered to elite, demanding private collectors. “‘You walk into Gucci, it’s a Gucci,” said Cahill, who is also representing a Malibu, California, couple, Martin and Sharleen Cohen, who bought another fake de Kooning. “That’s what’s really shocking. It’s a very reputational business, and not only did it happen, but they’re saying, ‘Look, too bad.’”
Howard and other plaintiffs have used forensic analysis to show that the paintings they bought are fake, and Rosales confirmed that in her guilty plea. Yet Knoedler and Freedman are using the money they made selling the fakes to pay for their legal defense and have refused to repay buyers, said Cahill.
Freedman “has never wanted to keep a dime received from the sale of fake works,” said her lawyer, Nicholas Gravante of Boies, Schiller & Flexner. The lawsuits, including Howard’s, demand far more in damages -- or they might have been settled long ago, he said.
“There is nothing, I mean nothing, that shows that anyone at Knoedler knew or should have known that these works were not authentic,” said Charles Schmerler, a lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright who represents the gallery and Michael Hammer in the civil cases. The gallery provided expert opinions on the artworks’ authenticity to buyers “so they could make their own inquiries,” Schmerler said.
As for Qian, friends support his argument that he was also duped. “He had no idea the business side of the art world is not that clean,” said Shanghai-based artist Ann Yen, who has known Qian since 1982. “He just keeps painting. Doesn’t matter if the earth is shattered or sky darkened. He cannot live without painting.”
Leaving the gallery in Shanghai, Qian said he has lost sleep over the forgery case. He’s getting famous in the wrong way, he said. “I have suffered for what I love.”